Empathy and Reading

* Anežka Kuzmičová, Anne Mangen, Hildegunn Støle, Anne Charlotte Begnum, ‘Literature and Readers’ Empathy: A Qualitative Text Manipulation Study’, Language and Literature, 26 (2017), 137–52.
* Anne Mangen, Anne Charlotte Begnum, Anežka Kuzmičová, Kersti Nilsson, Mette Steenberg, Hildegunn Støle, ‘Empathy and literary style: A theoretical and methodological exploration’, Orbis Litterarum, 73 (2018), 1–16.

In my last post I discussed a couple of essays I’d followed up after hearing Anežka Kuzmičová speak at the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities conference. Here are another couple of interesting items that resulted from that search. They both relate to the vexed question of empathy, and especially what literature might do for that human capacity. I’ll be coming back to this in my next post.
      The first essay, by Kuzmičová et al., aims to gain a richer understanding of the ‘positive correlation between literary reading and empathy’ shown in other studies. It focuses on ‘the literary nature of the stimuli… at a more detailed, stylistic level’. In order to do this, they took a short story and doctored it, creating a ‘non-literary’ version with less ‘stylistic foregrounding’. As I described in a post back here, this is something I think is both extremely interesting and, in practice, problematic. It is obviously hard to determine where the literariness of style resides, and what factors absent or present convey it. It may not, however, be prohibitively hard to produce something persuasive or provocative: I salute them for it.
      The results were interesting: they tested readers’ self-reports of their experiences of the story, and found that the ‘non-literary’ version elicited more ‘explicitly empathic responses’ than the original. This is not what other studies (on which, more, next time) have suggested. Kuzmičová et al. go on to develop interesting explanations as to why this might be the case. They suggest interesting things about the way that ‘aesthetically marked stimuli’ (i.e. moments of literary style) may create an element of distance in the response. They are thoughtfully critical of their own methods, and do not deny a link between empathy and literary quality that could be observed by other means.
      The second essay, by Mangen et al. also featured a manipulated text. Some participants read a version of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ shorn of metaphors and similes and other transmitters of literariness-in-style. They used means such as the famous ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test’, developed to explore the autism spectrum but also used more broadly as a test of empathy, to see what sort of effects these textual variations had on the empathy-outcomes — so the aim is similar that of the first essay.
      They too found indications that literary reading, especially in an educational setting, may have special properties. This ‘schooled’ reading seemed to be ‘more focused on identifying and interpreting literary or stylistic devices and tropes, rather than on emotional aspects related to personal engagement’. When reading less ‘literary’ texts, this set of techniques may not be engaged, and so a more straightforward kind of emotional engagement may be easier to achieve. They point to a potential problem in literature education, wherein ‘schooled’, distanced reading privileges feature-spotting over the sort of experiential engagement that is so important to literature outside the classroom, and which presumably leads to more enthusiastic readers.
      There are complex ideas entwined here: what the contribution of the type of text is; what the contribution of the reading environment is (as was emphasised in my last post); what the experimental manipulations and protocols create, wittingly or not; whether technical and empathetic reading need to be in opposition (I’d try to claim, for teaching and research, that in enhancing the former I am enhancing the latter, but of course there could be interference); what the goal of literary education should be (which reminds me of I read not long ago that made me think about what a practised, professional, questioning, ‘suspicious’ mode of critical reading might lose alongside its gains. Interesting stuff!

That is, The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, and Loving Literature by Deidre Shauna Lynch
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

5 thoughts on “Empathy and Reading

    1. Raphael Post author

      Thanks! And there is plenty to follow up, e.g. Anne Mangen et al. have done lots of interesting work on reading.

  1. simon

    Really interesting as ever. I think I’ve posted before about my anxieties over – claiming that reading Middlemarch makes you more empathetic/reading Middlemarch and not becoming more empathetic means you haven’t read it properly!
    Certainly, in the project I’m doing at the moment, teachers report that literary language can, well taught, elicit a more engaged response from school learners than more straightforward kinds of reading.

  2. Alyson

    Hi, are you reading Elfenbein’s The Gist of Reading yet? Also, Anne Whitehead’s critique of empathy discourse in her recent monograph is very trenchant, don’t you think?

  3. Raphael Post author

    Dear Alison — I haven’t read either of these. I’ll chase both up. I have been thinking about the Elfenbein book all year, but only got so far as to commission a piece on it for a journal where I am reviews editor. I do realise that isn’t the same as reading it, so I will get on to it soon. Thanks for the tips!


Leave a Reply to Raphael Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.