Literature as an empathy machine?

Dr Emy Koopman on NOS radio show Nieuws & Co

Doctoral research shows that reading literary texts can increase our empathic understanding for others, but warns not to reduce literature to an empathy machine.

Popular contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Alain de Botton have claimed repeatedly that reading literature would make people more empathic as well as more self-reflective. Literary reading, they and many others hope, turns us into better people. Until recently, however, there was little scientific evidence for such claims, apart from one well-known study which used a very basic measure of empathy (Kidd & Castano, 2013).

In her NWO-financed doctoral research project ‘Reading Suffering,’ Emy Koopman explored the effect of literary texts about grief and depression on our understanding for others and on reflection. She used experiments, surveys, and interviews.  

Koopman found some effects which appear to be specific to literary language. Both in the short and in the longer run, literary reading seems to be conducive to taking another person’s perspective. Original images may help to evoke feelings and thoughts. In addition, by lingering in people’s minds, these images can trigger us to reflect on suffering even after we have closed the book. An example from Koopman’s research is the phrase ‘the cold child’. This stylistic device, from a chapter by Anna Enquist, was deemed more emotional and thought-provoking by readers than less literary variants, such as ‘her deceased daughter.’  

On the other hand, the effects of literary reading should not be exaggerated: in one of Koopman’s experiments, a simple narrative text playing into readers’ emotions had a similar short-term effect on empathic understanding as a literary narrative text, and the simpler text appeared to be more effective in moving people to pro-social action. Emotions can thus be triggered through the originality of a text, but also through straightforward sentimental content, and it is through being emotionally moved that people continue to reflect about what they have read.

While the overall project showed positive results of literary reading, Koopman warns that we should not overly fixate on the pro-social potential of literature. Literary texts are not written to function as empathy machines, this is just a fortunate side effect of some texts. As any art form, literature should continue to have free rein.

About Emy Koopman

Emy has studied at Utrecht University and holds a Research Master’s degree in Literary Studies (2010, cum laude) and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology (2011). Between December 2011 and April 2016, Emy worked on her PhD-project in the Department of Media & Communication. In this period, she also taught at this department. Apart from her academic activities, Emy is an author. She has written a literary novel, Orewoet, published by Prometheus in September 2016.