Readers, here’s something to brag about: apparently, reading fiction makes you more empathetic than those who don’t.

Fiction has a powerful effect on the mind. Although stories are made from figments of our imagination, research has shown that it can help us navigate the real world. Not only does it help us in our perception of society, but fiction might actually make its readers better people as a whole. 

A study published by Oxford University Press revealed fiction fans had the strongest levels of social cognition. Brain scans were taken from participants in this study while they read literary passages. These passages ranged from vivid scenes with lots of physical descriptions to scenes that were strong or weak in presenting a person’s thoughts and mental state. 

The scans showed that people strongly responded to vivid, physical scenes and events as well as a character’s thought-process or mental state. This meant that readers better understood social behaviour and were more likely to respond well in social situations. And this mirrors our own society; in the past highly literate societies were less violent and more empathetic than those who were less literate.

Aside from fiction making its readers better socially, a study from The American Psychology Association revealed reading can also make people better citizens at heart. Those who read fiction were commonly found to display higher levels of empathy.

They also had the ability to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings compared to those who read non-fiction, or not at all.

Through reading a book about a character’s social, mental and emotional experiences, people were able to take away those same thought processes and implement them in their own lives. 

This effect was said to work even when reading about characters or stories that were far away from one’s own country or culture. Struggles were seen as struggles regardless and were taken on with the same amount of empathy and discretion.

More interestingly however, is the fact that romance is one of the strongest genres that cultivates these empathetic and caring traits. The study makes a point that a cognitive impact usually comes when there is a strong immersion to the characters and the story, which is a common experience within the romance genre

While fiction creates better citizens, non-fiction readers are slightly unlucky on this front. Studies have shown that their social abilities may not just be lacking, but could even be worse than those who read the genre less frequently.

This is mainly because they are less exposed to the imaginative and creative aspects of fiction that explore mental and physical description much more vividly than, say, biographical text. 

So for those who are not fiction fans already, it could be a genre to consider. After all, why would you hold yourself back from becoming a better person?

If you liked this post then read The power of biobliotheraphy: How reading can make you happier and healthier or Teacher-student relationships: Why this trope needs to stop next. 

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Shruthi Selvarajan

Shruthi Selvarajan

Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.

Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.