Which came first reader or empathy?

For years, I have had a theory about readers and empathy. It’s a fairly simple theory: basically I assume that people who are avid readers, or who grew up reading a lot, tend to have higher empathy levels than non readers. I should be clear, I’m speaking specifically about fiction readers here as that plays a big part in this next part of my theory. My theory basically centers around the idea that, as people who spend a great deal of their time essentially in someone else’s head and experiencing life and different situations and emotions through someone else’s eyes, it’s only natural that over time that ability to see things from another person’s point of view might grow stronger. (And yes, empathy is a lot more than just seeing things from another persons point of view absolutely, I’m just simplifying for the sake of keeping this on the shorter side since we all know I ramble.)

I know I am not the first to come up with this idea, and while I don’t really have a ton of data to back up my theory, I’ve done the very briefest amount of “research” to find a few articles and studies that seemed to essentially arrive at this same conclusion. But I do think it’s important to add that I have no formal background in psychology (just a personal fascination with it) and nothing to back up this theory. It’s mostly just always something I’ve believed must be true in some way, just because it felt like it made sense.

Recently however, a conversation with a friend of mine made me look at this idea a little bit deeper, and from a slightly different perspective than I have before, and I started to wonder: Does reading make you more empathetic, or does being more empathetic naturally make you more drawn to reading? Or is it both?

Basically, my friend was reading a book she knew I had read before, and we struck up a conversation based around her opinions surrounding some of the actions or thoughts of the characters in the story. Essentially, she was struggling to understand why the characters would react a certain way or think certain things. She thought it seemed unrealistic and over dramatic.

I tried to point out how the characters feelings and reactions made a lot of sense based on the world where the story is set and the circumstances they were dealing with, but she didn’t seem to really see that. Now, this friend does not enjoy reading – I’m not even 100% sure why she had decided to read this particular book at this particular time – and she also doesn’t happen to be the kind of person who I would say is a very empathetic person (for the record, she agrees with this, and also said it was OK to write this so don’t worry, I’m not trash talking a friend here!) and often simply can’t see things from another person’s perspective. Realizing all this, I started wondering if maybe part of the reason she doesn’t enjoy reading is because of the fact that she doesn’t find it easy to relate to the way the characters are feeling.

This makes sense to me in a way. I’ve definitely had the experience while reading where the characters actions were really hard to understand or justify and unless the author did a really good job of making the story compelling in some other way, it was difficult to get through. So I could see there being a connection between finding it difficult to empathize with others, and finding it difficult to enjoy reading.

Obviously, this isn’t the case for everybody. There are plenty of extremely empathetic people who can’t stand reading I’m sure, and probably just as many avid readers who can’t for the life of them understand the perspectives of most other people. But it does make me curious about the potential connection between empathy and reading.

Let me know what you think. Do you believe there is a link between empathy and reading? If so, do you think it’s more prevalent with readers of fiction or do you think non-fiction would have the same effect? Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts.

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