Reading Suffering

(Completed) PhD project by Emy Koopman

An empirical inquiry into empathic and reflective responses to literary narratives

This PhD-project addresses the reasons for and the effects of reading about suffering. Scholars like Martha Nussbaum have claimed an enormous ethical potential for literary works about suffering, stating that literature can make us more compassionate and reflective, but empirical evidence that such effects are uniquely triggered by literary texts (i.e., texts of high stylistic quality) is rare. The two main questions this research project addresses are: 1) what is the attraction of books about suffering?, 2) when we read texts about suffering, what effects does this have on us?

The persistent popularity in the Western world of stories about suffering, from Greek tragedy to Victorian social-realism to today’s memoirs about loss and disease, raises two questions: what is the attraction of these types of narratives and what are their effects? These questions have fascinated scholars within the Humanities at least as early as Aristotle, but in the last two decades they have acquired renewed relevance within the larger debate concerning the importance of literary reading. Literature, particularly literature about suffering, Nussbaum and others have claimed, has the potential to evoke empathy and reflection (e.g., Booth, 1988; Hunt, 2007; Nussbaum, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2010; Pinker, 2011; Sontag, 2007). These affective and reflective responses triggered by literary reading would even lead to more pro-social behavior.

The stakes for literature are high, but empirical evidence has been lagging behind (cf. Keen, 2007). Previous reader response studies have found modest positive effects, signalling, among other things, that stories can make readers more attuned to taking another person’s perspective (e.g., Hakemulder, 2000), can lead to better self-understanding (e.g., Miall & Kuiken, 2002), and can change readers’ attitudes (e.g., Green & Brock, 2000). Reading stories has also been associated with better empathy skills (Kidd & Castano, 2013; Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, Delapaz, & Peterson, 2006; Mar, Oatley, & Peterson, 2009). While these and other studies demonstrate the recent progress in researching the relation between reading and empathy, it is still unclear to what extent empathic and reflective effects can be attributed to a text being “narrative” (presenting related events happening to characters), “fiction” (depicting what could or should be instead of what actually was, cf. Aristotle’s mimesis) or “literary” (containing aesthetic and unconventional features). Moreover, little attention has been paid to the interaction between reader and text characteristics. To engage with the claims made by Nussbaum and others and to generally further our understanding of how readers relate to (literary) narratives about suffering, this PhD-project posed the following research questions:

  1. What are readers’ motives to read about suffering?
  2. To what extent do literary narrative texts about suffering evoke affective responses during reading, reflection, empathy towards others and prosocial behavior in comparison to non-literary texts? 
  3. To what extent do personal characteristics of readers influence those affective responses, reflection, empathy towards others and prosocial behavior?
  4. To what extent and how do affective responses during reading influence reflection, empathy towards others and prosocial behavior?

The project concentrated on depression and grief as forms of mental suffering that are regularly described in contemporary literature. Question (I) was investigated through a case study into readers’ motives to read A.F.Th. Van der Heijden’s “requiem novel” Tonio as well as through a larger survey study into readers’ general motives to read sad novels. A large-scale quasi-experimental study comparing reader reactions to three different genres (literary, life narrative, expository) and a slightly smaller experimental study comparing reactions to three texts with different levels of literary devices (“foregrounding”) tried to provide answers to questions (II), (III) and (IV). Finally, two qualitative studies using reading diaries (one "pilot" and one "full study") have been conducted to provide more insight into affective, empathic and reflective reader reactions.

Overall, the studies brought out both the ethical potential of literature about suffering and its limits. First of all, regarding the question what readers’ motives are to read books about suffering, it was evident that people do not simply want to read stories about suffering to feel better (about themselves), but that their main motives seem to be to have an intensely emotional and/or a cognitively meaningful experience. Thus, stories about suffering, for those who are attracted to them, are valuable in providing us with knowledge about experiences we have not yet had ourselves and may never have, but that are part of what it is like to be human.

Subsequently, if people read stories about suffering, it does indeed seem to be the case, as Nussbaum and others have suggested, that empathizing with a character can lead people to feel more empathy for people who are similar to that character, as well as leading people to reflect more on what they have read. Furthermore, when it comes to reading in general, the studies showed a possible “repeated exposure effect”: people who had a higher life-time exposure to literature also tended to score higher on at least one of two empathic measures, which is in line with previous studies (e.g., Mar et al, 2006; 2009). While this second finding is not a clear causal relation, in combination with the other findings, it is at least suggestive of the power of reading narratives.

So far, this does not say that much about specifically literary stories yet, thus mainly confirming the available empirical evidence. However, there also seemed to be specific effects of literature. While literary stories do not seem to have a larger impact on empathic responses than non-literary stories if those conditions are compared, literary stories could lead to deeper reflection, albeit for a small proportion of readers. When we just compared different versions of a literary story, we saw that striking literary features (“foregrounding”) do seem to have an impact on empathic understanding, perhaps because these foregrounded features help in evoking a broader, more mixed spectrum of emotional responses. Also, we saw a general connection between appreciating the style of a story and gaining insight. This latter finding does not have to be specific to literature, as people could also appreciate a more straightforward style, but it does show the importance of style for many readers.

Finally, the qualitative studies brought out the importance of looking at the reader-text interaction. Readers can respond quite differently to the same text, partly because of their personal experiences. How they experience the character and the style tends to affect their subsequent thoughts as well as their empathic understanding. Generally, reading novels about depression led to a fuller understanding of depression. However, it was also clear that people without experience with depression generally have a lot of incomprehension to overcome when reading about depressed characters.

Term: December 2011 – April 2016

Research team

Dr. Emy Koopman

PhD Candidate (completed)

Prof. dr. Susanne Janssen


This project was funded by NWO


For more information about the funding of this research, please see the NWO website.


Academic publications related to the PhD-project:

Popular publications related to the PhD-project:

  • Koopman, E.M. (2012). De waarde van andermans leed. De Groene Amsterdammer, 136(37), 50-53.

  • Koopman, E. M. (2014). De “steenachtigheid” van de steen. Wat mooie metaforen en klinkende klankherhalingen met ons kunnen doen. Tekstblad. Tijdschrift over Tekst & Communicatie, jaargang 20, december 2014.

  • Koopman, E. M. (2015, 16 november). Maakt het lezen van literatuur ons empathischer?

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