Heart on book

Fictional Stories Produce Real Results

Reading a novel, or binge-watching a fictional drama series, can help strengthen your sense of empathy for others, according to a new study.


With the end of summer on the horizon, the last book or two on your summer reading list just got that much more important.  A University of Toronto review, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences called “Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds,” found that reading or watching narrative fiction may make you a more thoughtful person. Fictional narratives have the potential to immerse readers and viewers in the worlds of characters with a perspective outside of their own. This engagement can help strengthen empathy skills in people, and lessen bias against people who identify within marginalized groups. It looks like your summer reads are for more than just relaxation.

Conducted by Dr. Keith Oatley, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, the review found that the areas of the brain that are active while listening and understanding a story are the same as those used when someone is feeling empathetic towards another person.  Dr. Oatley’s team used the Mind in the Eyes test as a way of evaluating empathy in readers and viewers. This established test gives participants 36 photographs of peoples’ eyes. Participants are then told to choose from four terms to articulate what the person in the photograph was thinking and feeling.

Along with literary fiction, this test has been used to measure the effect of other media on viewer empathy. Nonfiction, however, does not match up as well.  Another study mentioned in the review, “Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind” by Jessica Black and Jennifer L. Barnes from the University of Oklahoma, discovered that “viewing an award-winning television drama, such as West Wing or The Good Wife, improved scores on the Mind in the Eyes Test, whereas viewing a documentary did not.”

By simulating a social environment, fiction reduces prejudice in readers by giving them the ability to relate with diverse characters. In one study, participants were asked to read a story about a Muslim woman in New York. These participants later displayed fewer racial biases when asked to compare emotions attached to Arab and Caucasian faces. Narrative fiction helps people imagine scenarios beyond themselves, thus eliminating biases.

Diving into a book or watching a TV show encourages people to share connections based on struggles and victories within any background.  Maybe binging on Netflix is not so bad after all.

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Amanda Ghazale Aziz is Research2Reality’s summer student journalist. While studying English Literature and Equity at the University of Toronto, she also spends her time outside of campus as a member of Femifesto. She is the kind of person who sneaks food into movie theatres, but will always bring enough to share with you.