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Reading Fiction May Increase Empathy
September 12, 2011
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Researchers from the University of Buffalo have found that reading fiction can improve people's ability to empathize with others. For the purposes of their study, those "others" are wizards and vampires - the researchers used excerpts from JK Rowling's Harry Potter books and the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer to test the responses of 140 undergraduate students. They found that after reading passages from Harry Potter, students self-identified as wizards, while Twilight readers connected with the vampire characters.

While these specific examples may be a little trivial - as far as we know there aren't too many real-world vampires and wizards in need of empathy - a lot of serious thought has gone into the relationship between literature, empathy and social justice. The idea that reading can help us identify with others more fully, and even lead to a better society, has been around for a long time.

Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty have both argued that legal figures, especially judges, should read fiction in order to empathize more effectively with the accused. Literature, they believe, offers a way of engaging with the stories and internal lives of people different from ourselves, which may lead to fairer and more nuanced judgments ...

"As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves." - Martha C. Nussbaum

"Solidarity is not discovered by reflection, but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, "They do not feel as WE would," or "There must always be suffering, so why not let THEM suffer?" - Richard Rorty

However you feel about the theory that judges should read fiction, there was a serious debate about it in the United States in 2009, when President Obama said he'd be looking for "empathy" in his choice for a new Supreme Court judge. Many conservative commentators were enraged by the President's use of the word - Wendy Long, who clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, said "a judge is supposed to have empathy for no one but simply to follow the law."

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Empathy, Fiction and Justice


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