Are Readers More Empathetic?

People who enjoy reading literature tend to exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence and empathy compared to their TV-watching counterparts, according to a new thesis study examining the effects of reading and watching television on social behavior.

Rose Turner, a postgraduate research student at Kingston University London, presented her findings to the British Psychological Society, and soon discovered that her research was appearing in headlines around the world as people were fascinated by the psychological dimensions of reading.

“The interest in the study has been a very pleasant surprise, and it has been great to see that it has generated such a buzz,” said Turner.

“Reading is a universal pastime and we regularly hear about parents being encouraged to read to their children from a young age to help introduce them to language and develop their vocabulary. This study demonstrates that the different ways that people engage with fiction can impact their emotional intelligence and empathic behaviors.”

The study involved 123 adults of various ages participating in an anonymous online survey. Participants were asked to select their preferences for books, television, and plays, alongside being tested on their interpersonal skills, which included how much they considered others’ feelings and their desire to help those around them.

The findings show that book readers had greater awareness and empathy for other people’s feelings, while those who preferred watching television came across as less friendly and less understanding of others’ views.

When asked why reading might be associated with having better social skills compared to other forms of fictional media such as television or films, Turner said that reading is an individual experience that makes people think more deeply about characters.

“When we read we go by what is simply written on the page and we have to fill in the gaps as we go along, giving us a chance to develop empathic skills as we try to understand what a character is going through. Whereas when we watch something, we are provided with a lot of that information already,” she said.

Turner, who also works in the field of occupational psychology, says that she runs group exercises in social care settings, schools, and prisons that involve people using role-play techniques to develop their skills.

“I have seen firsthand how stories and the notion of becoming another character can have a positive impact on a person’s well-being. It’s not just a source of escapism but also a chance to imagine how somebody else sees the world.”

Turner will present her research to the American Psychological Society this summer.

Source: Kingston University