The benefits of fiction-engagement for empathic abilities : a multidimensional approach

Turner, Rose (2020) The benefits of fiction-engagement for empathic abilities : a multidimensional approach. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The processes involved in empathy, the ability to appreciate others’ inner experiences and respond appropriately to them, are central to the formation and maintenance of successful interpersonal relationships and communities (e.g., Castano, 2012). These skills typically emerge in childhood but can also be developed in adults (Teding van Berkhout & Malouff, 2016). Engagement with fiction may enhance adults’ empathic skills because readers mentally simulate the social experiences depicted in stories (Oatley, 1999). Several studies have identified positive relationships between exposure to fiction and empathic abilities (Mumper & Gerrig, 2017), whereas causal findings are more mixed (see Dodell-Feder & Tamir, 2018), and this may reflect heterogeneity across both fiction stimuli and empathy measures. The present research took a multidimensional approach to nvestigating the nature of relationships between fiction and empathic abilities. Study 1 examined correlations between self-report empathic abilities and fiction habits. Participants (N = 404) completed a multidimensional task measure of fiction media-exposure and answered questions about fiction-engagement and empathic tendencies. Results revealed divergent associations between narrative modes and empathic abilities, and fiction media-exposure positively predicted the tendencies to become absorbed in narratives and to behave altruistically. Study 2 (N = 308) assessed the relationship between fiction-exposure and performance on a behavioural measure of empathic accuracy (the ability to accurately interpret mental state content) when using mentalising or experience-sharing inferencing processes. Results showed that the two strategies entailed similar levels of error but in opposite directions. Empathic accuracy varied as a function of target and valence and was positively predicted by lifetime fiction-exposure. Study 3 investigated the causal impact of immersion. An initial pilot study, a text pretest, two manipulation pilots, and an experiment (total N = 224), were conducted. Ultimately, immersion levels, measured across three dimensions, were not successfully manipulated. Immersion dimensions correlated with self-report and behavioural empathic ability measures, and an exploratory analysis revealed an effect of reading on empathic accuracy for story characters’ mental states. Collectively, the studies provide support for the hypothesis that fiction-exposure and empathic abilities are associated, but limited evidence of causation. ethodological limitations, other influential variables, and research implications are discussed. The assumption that fiction and empathy are beneficial is critiqued, and future research avenues suggested.

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