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How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental

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AffiliationDepartment of Management & Organization, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

AffiliationFrieslandCampina, Deventer, The Netherlands

The current study investigated whether fiction experiences change empathy of the reader. Based on transportation theory, it was predicted that when people read fiction, and they are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story. No transportation led to lower empathy in both studies, while study 1 showed that high transportation led to higher empathy among fiction readers. These effects were not found for people in the control condition where people read non-fiction. The study showed that fiction influences empathy of the reader, but only under the condition of low or high emotional transportation into the story.

Citation:Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341.

Editor:Liane Young, Boston College, United States of America

Received:September 4, 2012;Accepted:December 21, 2012;Published:January 30, 2013

Copyright:© 2013 Bal, Veltkamp. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding:No current external funding sources for this study. The study was completely covered by the Erasmus University Rotterdam, where the study was conducted. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests:Martijn Veltkamp is employed by FrieslandCampina. There are no patents, products in development or marketed products to declare. This does not alter the authors adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials, as detailed online in the guide for authors.

Reading books and watching movies, plays, and operas are activities that people carry out on a day-to-day basis in their lives. Activities like these are referred to as the experience offictional narratives[1][2], and they may provide people with distraction from daily demands and possibly initiate intellectual inspiration[3]. Fictional narrative experience may have an important and profound impact on how people feel and behave in their daily lives[4]. For instance, it has been suggested that fictional narratives provide personal insights, and therefore are important for people in order to learn about themselves[2][3]. One direction that research on the effects of fiction experience has taken is whether fiction experience influences empathy of the reader[5][7]. It has been suggested that people who read a lot of fiction become more empathic, because fiction is a simulation of social experiences, in which people practice and enhance their interpersonal skills[3]. However, although studies have shown that fiction is correlated with empathy, there are several shortcomings to previous research.

First, researchers have questioned the causal relationships between experience of fiction and empathy. Does the experience of fiction really lead to higher empathy, or is it that highly empathic people tend to read more fiction, and therefore fiction is positively associated to empathy, as Argo et al.[8]have suggested? In other words, empathic people might simply enjoy fiction reading, and therefore the two are positively related to each other, excluding the possibility to draw conclusions about causal relations between fiction reading and empathy. A strict test of this question requires an experimental design in which effects of fiction experience over time can be assessed. Second, there have been no studies where effects of fiction reading on empathy are investigated using real existing stories. Until now, research designs have been based on either proxies of experience of fiction (e.g., knowledge of fiction authors)[6][7]or on very short texts that participants in experiments have to read[9][10], limiting the ecological validity of studies on the effects of fiction on empathy. Therefore, it is imperative that the effects of fiction reading on empathy are investigated under realistic conditions in an experimental design, in order to rule out reversed causality in the relationships[5]. There have been very few studies that have investigated effects of fiction over time. The current study addresses these limitations of earlier research by presenting two experimental investigations of the relationships between fiction experience and empathy, while comparing these relations to a control condition where people read non-fiction.

Finally, the study investigates the role of emotional transportation[11]in the aforementioned relationships. We propose that fiction experiences will change an individuals empathic skills only when the reader is emotionally transported in a story, as suggested by Oatley[3]. By looking at the moderating role of transportation[11][14], we investigate the assumption that peoples empathic skills will only be enhanced when the reader becomes emotionally transported by a fictional narrative. Although researchers have mentioned the role of transportation, there are very few studies that have empirically tested the influence, and until date, no study has looked at the role of transportation in predicting empathy.

The current article presents two experiments on the effects of fiction reading on empathy, and thereby makes several contributions to the existing literature. Through two empirical investigations of actual experience of literature reading (compared to a control condition), through studying the effects of fiction experience over time whilst controlling for previous levels of empathy and experienced negative and positive emotions during reading, and finally through investigation of the conditions under which fiction leads to changes in empathy (through looking at the moderating role of transportation), this study contributes to the field of investigation of effects of fictional narrative experience, and provides an answer to the question whether actual fiction experience influences individuals[7].

It has been argued that fiction may elicit stronger emotional and behavioral effects than nonfiction reading (e.g., newspapers and nonfiction books)[15]. Hence, a difference can be made between fictional narratives and non-fictional writing. Bruner[16]argued that narrative cannot be separated from fiction because every narrative told by an individual includes an interpretation of an event, and the narrators goals in telling the story. Hence, the difference between fiction and non-fiction is difficult to establish[16], and the narrative structure of the text determines the extent to which the text is able to influence a reader. Bruner, however, distinguished logico-scientific mode of thinking and the narrative mode. While the first is aimed at seeking universal truth conditions through argumentation and logic, which can be represented by for instance scientific publications and newspapers (henceforth nonfiction), the narrative mode aims at particular truth conditions, and establishes verisimilitude, or truthlikeness. The central focus of the narrative mode is believability, as assessed by the reader. This narrative mode of thinking is best represented by fictional literature[17]. Fiction focuses on believability; a fictional text is not assessed on its consistency as is the case in non-fiction, but rather on whether it establishes verisimilitude, or truthlikeness[16][18]. A reader will be affected by a fictional narrative only when it creates a narrative world that is real within its context, and more importantly, when it is realistic for the reader, thereby creating an opportunity to be drawn into the story, which is discussed in more detail later on. However, nonfictional logico-scientific thinking will not be able to elicit those feelings[16][19]. Fictional narratives present characters, events and the setting of a story in such a way that the reader can become transported and hence change through the narrative[17][20].

Even though little research has been conducted on the effects of fiction reading on empathy, there are several researchers who have explained why fiction reading influences empathy. Mar and colleagues[6][7][21]argued that fiction reading may have profound effects on empathic skills of the reader. When an individual reads a story, emotions are triggered by that story, such that an affective impression is elicited by the narrative. According to Oatley[2], fiction presents a simulation of real-world problems, and therefore has real consequences for the reader. Often when someone reads a fictional story, identification with the characters in the story and emotional involvement in the story causes the reader to sympathize with the characters, and perhaps even experience the events in the story as if the reader experiences the events him−/herself. Consequently, the reader practices being empathic while reading a fictional story. We define empathy in line with Davis[22][23]as: the cognitive and intellectual ability to recognize the emotions of other persons and to emotionally respond to other persons[24]. It includes sympathy and concern for unfortunate others[23]. Study of empathy is important because high empathic persons are more prosocial which is associated for example in the workplace to higher performance, productivity, and creativity[25][26]. There are several reasons why fiction reading may be related to empathic skills.

First, the simulation of real-world experiences in fiction might be associated with processes that people use in daily life to comprehend what happens in the world[7]. Consequently, through this sensemaking process, people gain a better understanding of the world and how they should interact with other people. People learn from fiction about the human psychology, and gain knowledge about how to react to other people in social situations, as argued by Mar et al.[7]. When an individual reads a story, he/she predicts the actions and reactions of the characters, by inferring what they are thinking, feeling, and intending. In order to do this, the reader sympathizes with the characters in the story, through taking the perspective of the characters and to experience the events as if it is the readers own experience. Moreover, some stories are able to make sense out of the senseless, and offer possibilities to understand other people across time and space, an opportunity which is not readily available in daily life[27]. The sympathy a reader feels for the characters is then integrated in the self-concept of the reader, through which the reader accumulates his/her ability to take the perspective of others, and to feel empathy[28]. Moreover, enhancement of empathic skills through fiction reading can contribute to peoples goals of who they want to be in their lives, such as to become a person that cares for other peoples welfare[29]. Hence, sympathetic reactions to fictional characters are integrated into broader response patterns in daily life, and empathic skills of the reader are enhanced[30].

Second, Mar et al.[6]argued that fiction experiences enhance imaginative thinking. In line with the Immersed Experiencer Framework[20], fictional words and stories activate neural processes that reflect real-world events which are similar to the story. Zwaan[20][31]introduced the Immersed Experiencer Framework to explain language comprehension by three mechanisms. When an individual reads a text, neural webs are activated while reading, through which an event in a story is simulated mentally by the reader. Finally, the reader integrates that what is read with existing mental models. Hence, this model explains at the language comprehension level that readers actively process texts and integrate these texts in their own human experiences[20]. Indeed, there is evidence suggesting that seeing or reading about another person experiencing specific emotions and events activates the same neural structures as if one was experiencing them oneself, consequently influencing empathy[32]. Thus, by reading a story, people imagine a narrative world that is similar to our own world. In this narrative world, people imagine how it is to see through the eyes of other people, by imagining and actually experiencing the thoughts and feelings of characters in a story. Hence, imaginative processes, evoked by fictional narrative experience, make people more empathic. Consequently, we argue that the reader becomes more empathic while reading fiction. The question however, is why fiction has such a potential impact on people.

Fiction is primarily aimed at eliciting emotions[2][3]. To become engaged in a fictional story, a reader suppresses the notion of fictionality of the story and the characters to experience the emotions of the characters[15]. According to Goldstein[15], a person reading fiction tends to react more strongly towards a story than when he/she would read a non-fictional story, because fiction provides a safe arena in which a reader can experience emotions without the need for self-protection. Because fiction does not follow the reader into real life, the reader can allow oneself to freely experience strong emotions, without immediate transfer of these emotions to real life. Moreover, we can allow ourselves to sympathize strongly with a character of a fictional story, because we do not have obligations towards the characters of a fictional story, while sad reports in a newspaper may cause feelings of obligation towards the victims to help them.

Another reason why fiction may have stronger effects on empathy than nonfiction is that fiction is processed differently than communications that aim to persuade a reader, such as commercial messages, scientific articles, opinion articles in newspapers, et cetera[33][34]. The effects of persuasive communication are likely to diminish over time, unless people are highly motivated and hence process the information in a systematic and elaborative way, in line with the Elaboration Likelihood Model[35]. For instance, a message about the negative effects of smoking may only temporarily change the beliefs of a reader. However, research has shown that individuals may be strongly influenced when they read fictional stories[34][36][37]. While readers are likely to read critically within the context of persuasive communication, a fictional narrative is more likely to be read with a willing construction of disbelief: the readers accepts assertions from a fictional narrative unless the reader is highly motivated to reject the assertion and is able to reject the assertion based on available knowledge[36][38]. Hence, the possible effects of stories on empathy are expected to be greater for fiction readers than for non-fiction readers.

Finally, another reason why nonfiction may have less strong effects on empathy than fiction has been presented by the theory of psychic numbing[39]. Slovic argues that the way a message (e.g., about victims) is presented to people influences their capacity to experience the affective information in that message and to feel sympathy. Specifically, it is easier to experience affect if a message presents information about a single, identifiable individual, than when information is presented about entire groups or using statistics (i.e., you can place yourself in the shoes of one other, but not of thousands). As a result, it has been shown in research on donating behavior that people will donate more money after reading information about an identifiable individual that suffered (e.g., one individual faces hunger) than after reading a message showing group statistics (e.g., 3 million people face hunger)[40]. In other words, a process of psychological numbing towards stories about large groups of people or objectified or statistically presented facts (which are often presented in non-fiction such as newspapers) is likely to occur, while fictional narratives, which are characteristically about individuals and their personal stories, may influence people to a much stronger degree.

In sum, because the focus of fiction is primarily on eliciting emotions, rather than on presenting factual information, fiction reading will be more likely influence empathy than non-fiction reading. The question remains, however,howfiction may influence empathy. Gerrig[12]argued that people may change as the consequence of fiction reading because they become fully immersed in a story, or in other words, they are transported into a narrative world. Gerrig[12]therefore presented the transportation metaphor to explain the effects of fiction on outcomes.

According to Gerrig[12], when people read a fictional narrative, they may become fully immersed into the story, which presents an alternative narrative world that is distant from the real world. While reading, people become transported into this narrative world, which often has been referred to a being lost in a book[41]. Fiction can be an escape from the current world and by means of reading or watching, one is absorbed into the story told in the narrative. Transportation is defined as a convergent process, where all mental systems and capacities become focused on events occurring in the narrative[14]. People lose track of time and fail to observe events going on around them; a loss of self-awareness may take place[42]. The narrative world is distant from the world in which the reader lives, and makes it possible that the events in the story are perceived as real within the story context, even when events would not be possible in reality[43].

The mental journey elicited by transportation makes it possible for readers to change as a consequence of reading fiction, because it elicits various processes, including emotional involvement in the story and identification with the characters[2][3]. Many studies have shown that when readers become transported into a narrative, personal change is more likely to occur. For instance, Green and Brock[14]showed that when readers became transported into a story, their attitudes about topics that were included in the story changed more strongly than those who were not transported into a story. Similar findings were obtained in studies by Appel and colleagues who found that transportation into narratives are the main precursor of changes in the individual[33][44][45]. Although researchers have argued that transportation may refer to both cognitive and emotional involvement in a story, we propose that it is primarily through emotional transportation that people may change, because fictional narratives are primarily written to elicit emotions among the readers, such as fear, surprise or joy[2]. In sum, personal change is more likely to occur when a reader is emotionally transported into a story.

Finally, in line with Appel and Richter[33], we expect that the effects of fiction experience on empathy are guided by an absolute sleeper effect[46][47]. Absolute sleeper effects occur when the effects of a manipulation do not present themselves immediately, but manifest themselves over time. Absolute sleeper effects in fiction research assume that the effects of fiction reading on empathy will increase over time rather than present itself directly after the experience[33][47]. There are two main reasons why these effects occur. First, Schank and Abelson[48]argue that when people organize information in stories (a process that fiction should facilitate, as it consists of stories already), the representations of these stories last better and longer. Thus, the effects of fiction should generally last longer than in logico-scientific mode of thinking (like in newspaper reports). Thus, when people are transported into fictional narratives, they are better in remembering the story, because they were more intensely involved in reading the story, which enables mental representations afterwards. Hence, fictional narratives as mental simulation of real world events[7]deepen the readers general tendencies to feel empathy with other people. Support for the idea that the effects of narrative fiction remains constant or may even increase over time comes from Paluck[49], who studied how a reconciliation radio program influenced perceptions of social norms in postwar Rwanda and found that through these radio stories, peoples perceived norms about how one should behave in social situations increased over time.

Second, for sleeper effects to occur, an incubation period is needed, in which people can rethink and relive that what has been read. Research on incubation has shown that spending some time on unrelated activities may enhance the effects of resolving problems, because an individual unconsciously connects the information from fictional narratives (e.g., people facing problems in their lives) with daily encounters, and consequently find new solutions through perspective taking and showing sympathy for other people[50][51]. This process may occur both consciously and unconsciously. As an example of the unconscious influence of narrative fiction, Marsh et al.[10]showed that false statements from fictional stories were used by readers when they had to conduct a knowledge task one week after reading the story. Moreover, Appel and Richter[33]found that the influence of false statements in fictional stories on peoples beliefs increased over time. Therefore, we propose that the effects of fiction on empathy do not present themselves immediately but manifest themselves over time. To test this idea and show long term effects of fiction reading on empathy, in both experiments we measured empathy both directly after reading a fictional story and after a one-week delay.

All in all, we expect that fiction will affect empathy over time only when a reader is emotionally transported into a story. The formal hypothesis of the study is:

Hypothesis 1: Fiction reading is positively related to empathy across time, but only when the reader is emotionally transported into the story.

To test the hypothesis, we present two studies in which the effects of fiction reading on empathy are investigated. In study 1, we investigated whether reading a Sherlock Holmes story influences empathy over the course of one week for readers who become emotionally transported into the story, while comparing these effects to non-fiction readers. In study 2, we sought to replicate these findings using a different story (a chapter from Blindness by Saramago), again using a control condition, while controlling for experienced negative and positive emotions. Stories were chosen because both stories include an event that happens to the main character (i.e., the murder to solve, and the spontaneous blindness of the man), and provided the opportunity to identify with the main characters, through which a reader was able to be transported into the story. Hence, readers could learn from the stories, as has been shown in research using these stories[52][53]. Second, the authors are well-known and the stories would appeal a wide audience, and would not be appreciated only by a limited number of people who favor a particular genre. Moreover, stories were chosen for which Dutch translations were available, since we aimed to avoid any problems with translating the stories into Dutch (the language of the participants)

Participants were 66 Dutch students who received course credits for participating in the study. They were randomly assigned to either the fiction or the control condition. All scales were measured using a self-report method. 36 participants completed the fiction condition, and 30 participants completed the control condition. There were no dropouts in the study; everyone who started the experiment finished it. Participants were on average 26 years old, 52% was female, and they spent on average 3.32 (SD = 3.88) hours per week on reading fictional books. We found no significant differences between the fiction and control condition in age, gender or amount of time weekly spent on reading fiction.

Participants worked from home where they filled out the questionnaires and read the stories online via computer. The ECP (Ethische Commissie Psychologie/Ethical Commission Psychology) of the university where the study was conducted approved the consent procedure. All participants provided written informed consent of being participants in the study prior to participating in the study. The experiment leaders documented this digitally. All data were analyzed anonymously. Any information that could potentially lead to the identification of individuals (e.g., email-addresses, student registration numbers) was deleted after completing the study, and prior to the analyses. The study has been conducted according to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki. The same procedure was followed for Study 2.

All participants started by filling out some demographic variables, a range of study-irrelevant scales, and the empathy scale (T1). We included study-irrelevant scales (e.g., attitudes toward work measures) to hide the purpose of the study. Subsequently, participants were instructed to read either a few newspaper reports or a chapter from a fictional book. Participants read the fictional narrative (fiction condition) or a selection of articles from the Dutch newspaperDe Volkskrant(control condition). After reading the text, they filled out the emotional transportation measure, the empathy scale, and some other irrelevant scales (T2). Participants had to provide a summary of what they had read, in order to check whether participants read the texts carefully. All participants provided accurate summaries, and hence no participant was deleted because of this reason. Precisely one week after reading the text, participants filled out a digital questionnaire from home, including the empathy scale (T3) and again irrelevant scales to avoid demand characteristics.

In the fiction condition, participants read the first part of a short story from Arthur Conan Doyle, called The Adventure of the Six Napoleons[54]. The story contained 2750 words and was read directly from the computer screen. The chapter was shown on one page, and readers could scroll-down to read the whole chapter. In the story, a plaster bust of Napoleon is shattered, a man is murdered and detective Sherlock Holmes is asked to solve the case. Participants did not read how Holmes solved the case.

In the control condition, participants read two stories from the Dutch high-quality newspaperDe Volkskrant. The text was also around 2750 words long, and included a story about riots in Lybia and the nuclear disaster in Japan, which took place in March 2011. The stories were selected because they included experiences from individuals who were interviewed and followed during the riots in Lybia and disaster in Japan, and therefore would allow the reader to become emotionally transported into the non-fictional reports. The newspaper stories fitted the logico-scientific mode because the texts were primarily aimed at explaining events (what has happened), and why a particular event has happened. The newspaper reports were factual and focused on conveying information to the reader about a particular situation. Moreover, the nonfiction condition was not narrative in nature, but consisted of factual reports about real people. However, both conditions were matched in length and in content such that in both conditions, readers had the possibility to become transported into the text because individual people were central to the report or the story.

Emotional Transportation( = .85) was measured directly after reading the text, using the scale from Busselle and Bilandzic[11]. It was measured with three items being: The story affected me emotionally, During reading the text, when a main character succeeded, I felt happy, and when they suffered in some way, I felt sad, and I felt sorry for some of the characters in the text. Answers could be provided on a 5-point scale (1 = not at all, 5 = to a very great extent). Transportation did not differ between the two conditions (F = 1.38,df1,64,ns).

Empathywas assessed directly before the experiment (T1), directly after reading the text (T2) and one week after the experiment (T3), using the empathic concern scale of Davis[22][23]. This subscale of Davis broader empathy scale was chosen because it reflected the part of empathy we were most interested in, being feeling sympathy and concern for others. It was measured using seven items, indicating the extent to which the participant feels empathic with other people. Example items are: Sometimes I dont feel sorry for other people when they are having problems (reverse-scored), and I am often quite touched by things that I see happen. Davis found this scale to be valid and reliable[22][23]. Reliability for the scale in this study was.71 at T1,.75 at T2, and.79 at T3. We also asses

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