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Reading fiction decreases prejudice, increases empathy

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — “Why should I read stories? They aren’t even true!” a young man in his senior year of high school told me.

I was astonished. One of my greatest pleasures is reading fiction that transports me into a different world.

But many people, especially boys, think reading fiction is a waste of time. Observing my son reading, for example, a young man doing work around the house told me that he never read for enjoyment. People who read are “lazy,” his father told him.

Now a spate of research is coming out that demonstrates the virtues of reading fiction.

1. Reading fiction increases understanding of the thoughts and emotions of others.

When readers get immersed in a story, they increase their social and emotional intelligence. Judith Lysaker and her research team at Purdue University, for example, did an experiment with 22 second- and third-grade students who had trouble with reading and social relationships.

The discussions focused not only on understanding what was read, but also on the emotions, thoughts and intentions of the characters. In one exercise, for example, students wrote a letter taking the perspective of a character in the book.

The experience not only increased reading comprehension, but also the children’s abilities to recognize emotions in other people.

2. Reading fiction increases empathy.

People who read fiction are more empathetic, studies have found. But does fiction increase empathy or are empathetic people more drawn to fiction?

People who read fiction do increase in empathy but only when they are emotionally engaged in the story, find Mathijs Bale and Martin Veltkamp in a 2013 study published in PLOS One, a resource of the Public Library of Science.

When people become immersed in a story, they experience the emotions of other people and take their perspectives.

The researchers assigned 66 undergraduates to either the fiction condition, where they read a short story about Sherlock Holmes, or to the nonfiction condition, where they read newspaper stories with emotional content, like people’s experiences during the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Before and after measures of empathy showed empathy indeed increased for the fiction readers — but only if they were emotionally engaged in the story. Empathy did not increase for the students who read the newspaper stories.

3. Reading fiction reduces prejudice.

The Harry Potter books have sold between 40 million and 45 million copies, one of the bestselling book series of all time. A recent article in Scientific American documents the positive effects reading the Harry Potter books has on children.

One of the themes of the Harry Potter series is the prejudice between different social groups. Harry Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups like the “Muggles,” who get no respect because they don’t have the abilities of wizards.

To find out if reading Harry Potter decreased prejudice against out-groups, Loris Vezzali and his colleagues at the University of Modena did an experiment. Thirty-four elementary school students were divided into two groups. The first group read Harry Potter passages related to prejudice.

The second group read Harry Potter passages unrelated to prejudice such as the scene in which Harry gets his first magic wand.

Before and after this reading experience, the researchers measured the children’s attitudes toward immigrants, a stigmatized group.

The children who read the Potter excerpts about stigmatized groups developed significantly more positive attitudes toward out-groups. The other group didn’t change.

This is a small study. However, Verzalli did two follow up experiments with similar results. Reading Harry Potter passages about prejudice led to more compassion toward refugees and more positive views toward homosexuals.

What should I have said to the young man who said that reading fiction was a waste of time because the stories aren’t even true? Reading fiction, I should have said, is not a waste of time. It increases your understanding of other people, decreases prejudice and increases empathy. You get vicarious experience of people, places and times other than your own.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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