How Reading Fiction Makes Us Better People

While literature has been criticized as a corrupting influence at different points in history, recent research suggests that works of fiction draw out the empathy in us, encouraging justice. 

What's the Latest Development?


If you've watched a recent episode of CSI, you probably exercised your moral faculty without know it. Recent sociological research suggests that we naturally draw moral distinctions between characters in fictional tales, following from how those characters treat the people around them. Jonathan Gottschall, whose findings will be published in the forthcoming book "Graphing Jane Austen", said: "Our survey respondents reacted to the characters as though they were real people: They admired the protagonists, disliked the antagonists, felt happy when the good guys succeeded, and felt sad or angry when they were threatened."

What's the Big Idea?

While literature has been condemned at different points in history for encouraging anti-social behavior, research suggests that individuals who read works of fiction are more likely to empathize with others. And while nonfiction is tasked with the purpose of persuading through argument and evidence, "studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical." Reading fiction, on the other hand, allows us to drop our intellectual guard, moving us emotionally. Evolutionary psychologists say nature has selected for storytelling because of its strong moral component. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com


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