This article is part of our series on understanding others’ feelings. In it we examine empathy, including what it is, whether our doctors need more of it, and when too much may not be a good thing.
A common argument for the value of the arts is the claim they cultivate empathy. Reading literature, viewing quality cinema and listening to fine music refine our sensibilities and make us better and more humane – or so the argument goes.
By taking us out of ourselves, art and literature make us open to and mindful of others. As the novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written, “literature sucks you into another psyche”.
Whether the arts do in fact enhance empathy – whether they suck us into other minds or just deeper into our own – is moot. What is certain is that highly empathic people tend to have distinctive cultural preferences.
Empathy’s dual character
Research by Cambridge University psychologists reveals five dimensions on which our preferences vary. People high on the “dark” dimension enjoy intense and edgy genres such as punk and metal music, horror movies and erotic fiction.
Those whose preferences are captured by the “thrilling” dimension enjoy action movies, adventure fiction and sci-fi. “Cerebral” people are drawn to news and current events, documentaries, educational programming and non-fiction.
And highly empathic people are most likely to have entertainment preferences that match the two remaining dimensions: “communal” and “aesthetic”.
Communal preferences focus on people and relationships, including a fondness for TV talk-shows, dramas and romantic movies, and popular music. Aesthetic preferences are more highbrow, running to classical music, arts and history programs and independent and subtitled movies.
The fact these two quite distinct sorts of cultural genres appeal to empathic individuals speaks to the dual character of empathy. On the one hand it leads people to take an interest in the familiar everyday dramas of social interaction. On the other, it draws us into an imaginative engagement with minds, experiences and worlds that are different from our own.
Empathic people may not only prefer particular entertainment genres, but also have a distinctive response to the negative emotions conveyed by them.
There is some evidence empathic individuals are relatively averse to genres involving violence and horror, perhaps because they resonate acutely to the pain experienced by the bloodied fictional victims.
In contrast, empathic individuals revel in other negative emotions conveyed by the arts. For example, one study showed people who score high on absorption – a tendency to become deeply engaged with particular experiences that is strongly associated with empathy – are more likely to enjoy negative emotions conveyed by music.
Empathy may therefore make some negative emotions more unpleasant while making others paradoxically enjoyable.
Does art nurture empathy?
But while empathy is associated with being drawn to the arts, the question remains: do the arts actively promote it, or merely appeal to already sensitive souls? The causal arrow could point in two directions.
Exposure to literature and the sorts of movies that do not involve car chases might nurture our capacity to get inside the skins of other people. Alternatively, people who already have well developed empathic abilities might simply find the arts more engaging, even if their exposure to it does not hone those abilities.
In 2013, psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano ran five experiments to test whether exposure to literary fiction enhances empathy.
In each experiment, they randomly assigned one group of study participants to read short passages of literary fiction excerpted from National Book Award finalists.
One or more other groups were assigned to read passages of nonfiction, popular fiction (drawn from Amazon.com bestsellers) or nothing at all.
After reading the passages, participants completed tests measuring their Theory of Mind – the ability to detect and understand other people’s mental states, which is the foundation for empathy.
Theory of Mind was measured mostly using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. In this test, people must correctly guess a series of emotional expressions from photographs of the eyes.
In each of Kidd and Castano’s studies, people who had just read literary fiction performed better on the empathy measures. The researchers argued that any general empathy-promoting function of fiction could not explain this benefit, as it was restricted to literary rather than popular fiction. Instead, they argued, literary fiction facilitates empathy by inducing readers to take “an active writerly role” in understanding the mental lives of the characters.
In essence, Kidd and Castano argue literary fiction uniquely fosters the capacity to simulate the nuances of others’ experience.
This claim is supported by evidence the brain networks involved in making sense of other minds are activated strongly when people read literary depictions of other people.
Although the effects of reading literature on empathy might be short-lived, the researchers speculated it might build enduring empathy in avid readers. Indeed, there is ample evidence people who read more fiction perform better on tests of Theory of Mind.
Reading literary fiction may train up the neural networks that underpin empathy, with lasting benefits.
Jury still out
Will exposure to literature and the arts make you a better person? Perhaps, but the jury is still out. Several labs have failed to replicate the original finding of even fleeting effects of literary fiction on the capacity to step into another person’s shoes.
It is also increasingly clear that taking that step does not invariably lead to better behaviour. Taking another’s perspective in a competitive situation, for instance, makes people behave more unethically. And taking the perspective of people who we see as a threat can make us view them more negatively.
So we should not expect lovers of art and literature to be nicer people, just a little better at understanding the complexities of experience.
Empathy may not always make us more humane, but it may have other benefits. As Steve Martin said, “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”
Read yesterday’s introductory essay on empathy here.