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Overall, the studies brought out both the ethical potential of literature about suffering, but also its limits.

Overall, the studies brought out both the ethical potential of literature about suffering, but also 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. 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 of others, 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.    

For more specific information about the studies in this project, please consult the articles listed below or email Emy at e.koopman@eshcc.eur.nl. If you are not affiliated with a university, you can find author versions of the articles at academia.edu.

 

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Overall, the studies brought out both the ethical potential of literature about suffering, but also its limits.

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Publications within this project
Articles about readers’ main motives for reading about suffering: