How Reading Fiction Improves Empathy

A New York Times piece sometime back by writer Susan Pinker summarizes multi-years research on the relationship between reading fiction and how we understand others.  The article, “Novel Findings: Fiction Makes Us Feel for Others,” looks at several studies between 2006 and 2013 that reveal remarkably similar results.  Here are three quotes that have advisors’ names all over them. 

“Fiction reading predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction.”   

“Later studies confirmed that reading fiction causes a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions—at least in the short term.”  

A 2013 study took a different route. Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research wondered if the “type” of fiction mattered.  Their findings?  “Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.”

Have you read a good novel recently? Like it or not, we are in the people reading, people de-coding, people understanding business. Before we get close to determining risk tolerance, an asset allocation, or investment recommendations, we must sit beside, listen to, and journey with our clients to that wonderful but mystical place where their stories and ours meet.

In a way, traveling through a novel is a no-risk relational simulation in which we observe how the story’s characters handle disappointment and wonder, success and failure, joy and grief, love, and rejection.

The bonus is the ability to escape, for an hour or two, the demands of our very real lives. 

So, here are five novels from my list that can place you in a laboratory where you will gain insight on how to understand yourself and others better.

Kathleen Grissom, The Kitchen House

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

In each of these novels, you will meet characters who struggle with who they are, what life is demanding from them, ethical and moral decisions of all kinds, and how best to face the future staring them in the face. So read fiction, enjoying a well-written story while discovering insightful handles on how to do this good work better. 

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *