School & District Management

Fiction Teaches Students Empathy, Research Shows

By Kristie Chua — September 08, 2014 1 min read
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Children can learn empathy through reading fiction and identifying with characters in a story, a new study concludes.

At the American Psychological Association ‘s 122nd Annual Convention in August of this year, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, spoke about his study examining the relationship between reading fiction and being able to emphasize with others.

“When people read stories we invoke personal experiences,” he said. “Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships.”

Mar’s study tested 55 children and their parents to explore the correlation between the parents’ familiarity with children’s texts and their children’s performance on theory of mind tests. These tests examined if children can attribute beliefs and desires to themselves and recognize that others may have differing beliefs and desires.

The study tested parents’ recognition of children’s texts so as to eliminate bias, since researchers believe parents would not accurately report their children’s exposure to fiction stories.

Mar found that children whose parents were better at recognizing children’s books performed substantially better on theory of mind tests. Mar believes that conversations between parents and their children about these stories helps children develop an understanding for the characters.

At the conference, Mar cited an earlier study that found approximately three-fourths of books read aloud to preschoolers reference mental states and include complex emotional situations. It is around this age that children begin to understand how characters in stories feel.

“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world ... and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us,” Mar said, according to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “But with a caveat—it’s not a magic bullet—it’s an opportunity for change and growth.”

Mar also discussed another study, which concluded that reading a child a story about honesty led the child to act honestly when presented with an opportunity to act cheat or lie later on.

Another study concluded that reading the Harry Potter book series improved students’ attitudes towards stigmatized groups.

Photo by Amanda Tipton/Flickr Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.