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 (e.g., 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.

Following a successful pilot study undertaken by Dr Helen Drew, working with Profs Jane Oakhill, Alan Garnham and Robin Banerjee, we are now putting together a major research programme to explore ways of measuring how and whether reading fiction is associated with empathy in children. There are lots of issues to consider here:  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? Our research involves a combination of longitudinal and experimental work to address these questions and achieve our fundamental research aims of illuminating the causal impact of reading on children's empathy 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 EmpathyLab 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. Through our colllaboration with EmpathyLab, we are already working closely with leading authors, major publishers, schools and parents. A showcase every year is the annual Empathy Day, which celebrates the campaign to #readforempathy.