finction book effect
Reading or watching fiction can improve people's empathy.David Levenson/Getty Images

Reading fiction novels may make people more empathetic, a psychologist has said. This is because readers identify and sympathise with the emotions and ideas of the characters, a skill which they can then reproduce in real life.

Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto investigates whether reading fiction improves people's mental well-being and social interactions with others.

Research into the interaction between literature and psychology has taken off in the last few years, but evidence that reading is beneficial for mental health have not always been conclusive.

Here, Oatley conducts a review of scientific literature, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, to better understand why fiction may be good for us.

Simulation of the real world

Oatley finds that the most important effect that literature has on people is stimulating a social world which prompts empathy and understanding in the reader. He mentions one test performed on readers: the so-called 'Mind of the Eyes Test'. Participants are told to view picture of people's eyes and from that, determine what they are thinking or feeling.

Readers of fictions appeared better at predicting people's emotions on the pictures than non-readers. "If fiction is the simulation of social worlds then, similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills", Oatley says. People thus show greater empathy when they read fiction.

But this was also the case when those studied watched a TV series, suggesting that it is fiction – not just in books but also on TV - and the ability it has to trigger our imagination, that make us better suited to deal with others.

"The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social," continues Oatley. "What's distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people, with friends, with lovers, with children, that aren't pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience."

Empathy for other lives

Some studies have shown that fiction can even make you feel empathy for people who live very different lives than you - so long as you begin identifying with them on a basic human level.

One of such study identified a decreased acceptance of norms about male–female relations in Algeria, contrasting the thoughts of those who read part of a novel about experiences of an Algerian woman, compared with people who read part of a nonfictional essay on the same topic.

This suggests that fictional characters enable readers to imagine what it might be like to be in other people's situations, even if they are from a different sex, ethnic origin or nationality.

Oatley's review shows fiction has a role to play to improve social ties and empathy levels in society, but more questions remain unanswered. Future research will focus on people who are assigned to read narrative fiction or explanatory nonfiction over a matter of months. Researchers should also assess how long fiction's empathy-boosting effects last.