Almost all of us have empathy: the only people who completely lack the ability are people with mental pathologies like narcissism and sociopathy. But even mentally-healthy people can vary in their levels of empathy, and now it seems there's one way to increase it: read more fiction.
Not any old fiction will do the trick, though: The study referenced in Scientific American tested literary fiction against "popular" fiction and nonfiction. Literary fiction was the clear winner: subjects who read books deemed "literary" did significantly better in tests measuring "their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions" than subjects who read popular fiction or nonfiction.
The example SciAm gave of a literary book is Louise Erdrich's The Round House, which won the National Book Award last year. For popular fiction, test subjects read excerpts from authors like Danielle Steel. I think we can all agree that Erdrich and Steel are pretty clear examples of their type: there's no question the one is literary and the other is popular. Books like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game or Alice LePlante's Turn of Mind are blurrier: one is science fiction, the other is a mystery, and genre is usually considered popular fiction. But both of those books fit the "literary fiction" definition in other ways: they are intensely interested in character; in fact, each plot actively flows from character. They also bother with language, the rhythm and flow of words on a page. They are both quite dark and end (spoiler alert!) rather unhappily; popular fiction tends to favor tidy, happy endings.
So what I'm saying here is: don't get too hung up on categorization. If the book has nuanced characters whose minds you really get into, that's what counts.
Which brings us back to the point—why are these three styles of writing (literary, popular, and nonfiction) so different in their effect on empathy? From the SciAm article: "Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize."
|Walk a mile in her shoes: read a book|
The study is of particular interest to people who work with disadvantaged youth, who don't have the access to normal socialization that their more privileged counterparts enjoy. It's also of interest to people who work with prisoners and empathy-challenged people like those sociopaths mentioned above. If empathy can be improved, it makes sense to spend effort improving it. For the rest of us, it can also help, though: empathy can dismantle the in-group vs. out-group barriers that keep so many of us apart: whoever you consider "the other," whether that's Muslims, blacks, or gays, you are less likely to maintain fear and discomfort if you learn to empathize with that group. Read The Kite Runner and your perspective on Afghanistan and its people will be forever changed. Read Native Son and briefly take on the perspective of a black man in early 20th-century America. Read Madeline Miller's gorgeous Song of Achilles to imagine what it's like to be a male warrior falling on love with another man ... in ancient Greece. Other books can cross other divides: religion, nationality, gender, even time.
This is not to say there's anything wrong with reading or writing popular fiction. "There are likely benefits of reading popular fiction—certainly entertainment," says study author David Comer Kidd. "We just did not measure them." Rather than dismissing popular fiction, readers and writers of literary fiction can focus on what's right with their preferred style. In an interview with NPR, author Jesmyn Ward said she found the study's results inspirational. "If that's true, then that's exactly what I want to happen when I write," she said. "Part of the reason that I write about what I write about is that the people I grew up with, poor people and black people, are underrepresented in fiction. So it's amazing to me that a study like this shows that people are seeing these characters and can empathize with them and sympathize with them. It makes me feel like what I'm trying to do is working."
You can never go wrong with bringing more empathy into the world.