Reading fiction and empathy in children

Research exploring whether reading fiction can foster empathy and prosocial behaviours in children

There is a great deal of current interest about how best to foster empathy and positive behaviours in early and middle childhood. But what do we mean by empathy? Many researchers highlight the distinction between cognitive empathy - our understanding of another's emotions, and affective empathy - our ability to feel with someone. There are also close links between cognitive empathy and what is called broader Theory of Mind or mentalising  - our ability to understand the minds of others including their beliefs, thoughts and intentions.

Research with adults suggests that being a regular fiction reader can increase both prosocial (positive / helping) behaviour and empathy. Indeed there are some indications that even brief sessions of reading good 'literary' fiction may increase empathy. But there is a surprising lack of research about whether reading fiction is a way to enhance empathy in children, although there are positive indications from work that is already being undertaken with schools and families.

Helen Drew is working on a six month pilot study supervised by Profs Jane Oakhill, Alan Garnham and Robin Banerjee to explore ways of measuring how and whether reading fiction is associated with empathy in children. There are lots of things to think about! What kinds of texts are important? Does the child already read lots of fiction already? Does it matter how much they engage with or 'get lost' in a text? And what aspects of empathy or Theory of Mind should we be measuring? We hope this pilot research will lead into a much larger study.

Jimena Rojas Bernal has just started working on her PhD with Prof Robin Banerjee. She aims to explore how children's reading relationships (with parents, peers and teachers) can foster their emotional security as well as their development of empathy. Jimena will be looking at the development of  cognitive, affective and kinaesthetic empathy, as well as prosocial behaviours. Jimena is also interested in exploring the effect of role-play and dance/embodiment on empathic development.

CRESS lab always places high importance on the real world impact of our research and we are very excited to be working closely with which is a new organisation working to harness the power of storeis to build children's empathy skills and to bring about an empathy revolution in homes, schools and communities. They are already working closely with authors, schools and parents and our research will complement and support their work.