Thursday 11 May 2017

Does reading make people kind? 

No, but it might make you more empathetic, and possibly a mind reader. 

The NZ Herald has an article stating that research has found that reading makes you kind. Some vague reference to the research is made, but no links are provided. In fact, the entire article looks like a copy and paste from a UK paper.  

Intrigued, I dug a little. It turns out that the research is not about being 'kind' but rather whether reading is conducive to developing empathy. 

For the record, empathy is a superpower (see 'Speaker for the Dead' etc ;)). It is the ability to take another being's perspective, and hence understand and communicate with them. 

Image result for speaker for the dead and xeno

So, does reading make you kinder or more empathetic, and are readers better people?

Well, Hitler was incredibly well read. He was also very kind to certain people. This shows you that 'kindness' is not a great measure for success, nor a superlative goal. The Herald article implies it is the ideal end goal for us and our children. They should all be kind and reading is the way to do it. In response to the Herald: No, reading does not make you kind. No such research exists.

Perhaps a moral framework with which to make decisions is a more mature approach. However, I digress. 

'Empathy' is a better construct than kindness, and there is a body of related research.   

Does reading increase empathy? Possibly. Check out the research below.   

McCreary, J. J., & Marchant, G. J. (2017). Reading and Empathy. Reading Psychology, 38(2), 182-202. 

The relationship between reading and empathy was explored. Controlling for GPA and gender, reading variables were hypothesized as related to empathy; the relationship was expected to differ for males and females. For the complete sample, affective components were related to GPA but not reading. Perspective taking was related to reading appreciation but not GPA. For females, reading appreciation was related to perspective taking and empathic concern. For males, GPA and non-fiction reading were positively related, but both were negatively related to empathic concern. Results suggest reading may promote both academic achievement and social development. Findings and social implications are discussed. 

Neuman, Y. (2010). Empathy: From Mind Reading to the Reading of a Distant Text. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 44(3), 235-244. doi:10.1007/s12124-010-9118-7

In the psychoanalytic literature empathy is commonly discussed as a form of 'mind reading', which is deeply associated with the capacity to mirror the other's mental state. In this paper, I propose an alternative perspective on empathy as the process of reading a distant text. This perspective is illustrated through a Talmudic story and by weaving a thread between Bakhtin, Bion and Lacan. The paper concludes by pointing to the danger of empathy as a hidden form of projective identification that provides the reader with a false sense of control rather than with negative capability for otherness. 

Ah ha! Empathy may simply be the projection of our own identities?  I personally think this is minimised as you read, and hence partake in, others lives and experiences. To me this suggests a shallow empathic is still shallow. 


Junker, C. R., & Jacquemin, S. J. (2017). How Does Literature Affect Empathy in Students? College Teaching, 65(2), 79. doi:10.1080/87567555.2016.1255583

Scholars have suggested that reading literature can foster empathy. However, learning empathy through literature in the classroom is understudied. The primary objective of this study was to assess whether affective and cognitive empathy, as demonstrated in student writing, relates to textual attributes, the style of writing prompt, student writing ability, and whether it changes over time. Students in a college literature classroom were asked to assess texts according to a series of attributes related to engagement and textual difficulty, followed by a series of analytical and creative writing prompts. These responses were scored on a comparative scale according to metrics of empathy and compared with textual attributes, strength of writing, and time using a general linear model. Textual difficulty was identified as the greatest predictor of empathy (inverse relationship) followed by assignment grade (positive relationship). These results indicate that textual attributes, strength of writing ability, and style of writing response play a central role in explaining empathetic responses in students. The furthest-reaching implications of this study may, however, rest in the findings that empathy didn't change over the short time period and that textual accessibility may trump all other aspects in facilitating empathetic responses. 

So, how does reading help develop empathy? 

It seems to provide a richer perspective of humanity with which to make judgments, and it allows you to 'step into' the feelings of others. 
However, there is a pseudo-empathy. This is when you simply project your own identity onto others. Reading widely may minimise this. 

My summary - reading is one way to expose yourself to a wide array of experiences and perspectives, which is essential 'but not sufficient' to develop empathetic superpowers (not just empathy). The more widely you read, and enter into the lives of others, the deeper your reservoir of experiences. Books that get more 'life on the page' (such as good literature) are better at developing such a reservoir.  

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