Reading fiction as an escape has hidden benefits. Research shows that when readers feel emotionally transported into a work of fiction, their empathy increases.
Authors can have a lasting impact on their readers. Fiction authors hope to impact their readers by entertaining them, inspiring them, or informing them. Fiction has the potential to transport people to different worlds and times. When fiction achieves this transportive quality, research shows it increases the reader’s empathy.
Previous research has already shown that reading fiction increases empathy in readers. But how does fiction increase empathy? Does all fiction have this effect? These two questions are examples of what Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp (2013) investigated. Their study “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy: An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation” focused specifically on transportation theory. This theory states that when people are figuratively transported into the narrative world while reading, they are emotionally transported as well. This emotional transportation increases the reader’s empathy by increasing their emotional involvement with the story and characters.
The researchers examined two groups of students. One group was given nonfiction material to read, while the other group was given fiction. Both the fiction and nonfiction material was considered transportive, in that it was deemed by the researchers to immerse the reader into the story. Additionally, a few control groups were given both fiction and nonfiction material that was not considered transportive. The students were asked to self-report just before, just after, and a week after reading their respective materials. They answered questions about the empathy they felt both in general and toward the material they read.
The results showed that emotional transportation increased alongside empathy for fiction readers. The control group members, however, didn’t have that same increase. Empathy decreased in the group of fiction readers with low transportation. Conversely, fiction readers that experienced high transportation had empathy levels increase. The study’s results showed that the fiction readers were more empathic over a week’s time only when they were emotionally transported into the story. In other words, fiction increased empathy via transportation. Transportation was the key factor that determined fiction’s effects on empathy.
The research’s results also showed that transportation alone was not enough to affect empathy. This was shown by stagnant levels of empathy in nonfiction readers regardless of transportation levels. The researchers observed that “a reader has to become fully transported into the story to change as a consequence of reading, to become more empathic”(Matthijs and Veltkamp 2013, 8). The experiment showed significant increase in reader empathy levels when exposed to fictional genres, but only when transportation levels were high.
Fiction is a powerful medium that can be used in a multitude of ways. This study’s conclusion indicates that transportive fiction increases empathy, but why should this matter to authors and editors? Harnessing a reader’s empathy is a powerful thing that has the possibility to bring about change. This research is beneficial to those who are passionate about something and want to share that with others in an effective way.
For example, authors can choose to bring awareness to marginalized or oppressed groups while depicting these groups in a way that lets the reader feel a connection to the group. Empathy is a persuasive tool. When readers are transported into a story, they have the unique opportunity to build a personal connection with the story and the characters in it. Therefore, growing empathy in readers may help bring people closer together.
—Kassidy Acker, Editing Research
To discover more about transportive fiction leading to an increase in empathy, read the full article:
Bal, Matthijs and Martijn Veltkamp. 2013. “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation.” PLOS One 8 (1): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341.
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Find more research
Read more about the connection between fiction and empathy in Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, and Jordan B. Peterson’s (2009) article: “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes” De Gruyter 34, no. 4: 407–428. https://doi.org/10.1515/COMM.2009.025
Learn more about transportation theory in Dan R. Johnson’s (2012) article: “Transportation into a Story Increases Empathy, Prosocial Behavior, and Perceptual Bias Toward Fearful Expressions” Personality and Individual Differences 52, no. 2: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.005.