Fiction And Empathy

I recently came across some insightful statistics on reading. They vary somewhat by state, but here’s an overview.

  • Women read more than men.
  • Most Americans don’t read fiction.
  • Between 1982 and 2012 fiction reading declined from 56% to 46%
  • Men mostly read nonfiction.
  • Women mostly read fiction.
  • Executives far outpace the general population in the number of books read per month.
  • The biggest driver of literary reading is education; the higher, the more books read
  • The genres that make the most money in order: romance/erotica, crime/mystery, religious/inspirational, science fiction/fantasy, and horror.
  • A 2018 survey asked why people read fiction. In order, the reasons included: For entertainment, to appreciate other places and people in the world, to understand the circumstances of others, to escape the everyday world, to learn, to pass the time. 
  • The sale of print books is declining. Only 54% of Americans cracked open a book of any kind last year—print or digital, fiction or nonfiction. Fiction suffered most.
  • In the past decade, poetry suffered the steepest decline. Only 6.7% of American adults read poetry last year, versus 12% in 2002. 
  • 28% of adults read an e-book in 2013, up from 23% the year before.

In 2013, MarketWatch published an explanation for the overall decline in reading. Now, six years later, especially considering the popularity of selfies, their perspective is worthy of consideration. It’s narcissism the author said. “Americans may be more fascinated with their own lives than with those featured in great works of literary fiction: Some 56% of Internet users have searched for themselves online, such as by typing their own name into Google, according to the Pew Research Center. Studies also show that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, in part because “adults have been presented with a tidal wave of easily accessible and affordable entertainment.”

Further, “Students have been abandoning the humanities in favor of the sciences: The number of students taking bachelor degrees in humanities hovers at around 8%, less than half the number four decades earlier, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in a study released in 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Americans just 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy.”  

I cite this data because I think it relates to empathy, the loss thereof, which is being reflected in public policy here and abroad. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defines empathy as “the ability to know how another feels…. to perceive the subjective experience of another person.” In that same book, Martin Hoffman argues that “the roots of morality are to be found in empathy because empathizing with someone in pain, danger, or deprivation moves people to act.” It leads me to wonder if the systems responsible for managing immigrants—worldwide—would be more humane if their administrators sat down and had a conversation with those detained.     

I’m not alone in believing that reading works of poetry and fiction can awaken and activate empathy. A recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences observed that “fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.” That’s key: reading fiction can contribute to how we think and perceive the world. I’d like to see some savy journalist ask our political leaders in both parties if they read poetry or fiction.

Unfortunately, “Empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years.” Research led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. I was particularly fascinated by the methodology that Dr. Konrath used—the Interpersonal Reactivity Index which measures empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” And “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

I was almost an exclusive reader of nonfiction until I married Linda. Even for a long time afterward, I mostly read to supplement my work, projects or worldview. Browsing her bookshelf somewhere in the early ’80s, I picked up John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath, and I was hooked. The journey was fascinating and the ending shocking, nothing I could have imagined. Being emersed in a time, place, people’s lives and circumstances that were totally foreign to me—and based in historical fact—was a wakeup call. I didn’t know my general empathy for human beings could be so poignantly activated by reading. 

From then on, I became a regular reader—and eventually a writer—of fiction. Because of my interests and work, I never stopped reading nonfiction, but it was works of fiction that stirred my capacity to empathize and approach an understanding of how other people think and respond to challenges. When I observe what’s going on in the news these days, I’m reminded of a Daniel Goleman quote. He said, “Lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring.” Empathy then is real caring based on understanding someone else’s perspective and circumstances. Importantly, he explained that “rapists, child molesters, and many perpetrators of family violence alike are incapable of empathy.” It speaks to cause. “They’re emotionally handicapped, incapable of understanding what their victim is feeling in the situation. These and other crimes are pursued as though the victim has no feeling of their own.” This appears to be a mental health issue that isn’t even being talked about.

There’s an opportunity here. Encouraging and promoting the reading of fiction and poetry meant to enlighten—humanities publications in general—could be an easy way to awaken empathy and ease social decline due to mental health. This isn’t the whole answer, of course. But the lack of empathy is a serious problem, evidenced by the worldwide trend toward pulling in (nationalism) which suggests self-serving motivations, fear and a lack of trust. The strategy of a person lacking empathy is exactly that, pulling in and drawing lines in the sand—“I don’t need you.” “Keep out.” “I can go it alone.” It’s an illusion. It has been proven that human beings and human societies can’t go it alone. They become dysfunctional and then die because living systems are, by definition, interdependent networks of functioning relationships. As the ancient Maya and other civilizations have demonstrated, building protective walls—physical or psychological—around cities cuts them off from the great and necessary advantage of diversity, an essential evolutionary component that creates resiliency. Creative works that awaken empathy help us to respect and value diversity, and in doing so make us resilient. 

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. 

Carl Rogers (Psychologist)

About The Photograph

This has been a favorite photograph of mine since it was taken in the early ’70s. It beautifully records Linda’s love of literature—poetry in this instance. And it expresses the sensibility of peace of mind that both of us cherish. The shot wasn’t posed. You see her here in a quiet moment. I just happened to have a camera with me. Often, having a camera at hand has resulted in unexpected gems.

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