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To Be Empathetic or Not to Be: How Fiction vs. Nonfiction Reading Influences Empathy

Abstract: This research examines whether empathy can be influenced by the belief that a text is fiction or nonfiction, as well as by the presentation of different types of discussion questions. Using the theory of fictional perception, it is hypothesized that individuals, who believe they are reading fiction and respond to engaging questions, will demonstrate higher empathy. One hundred and fifty-five participants were recruited via social media for this experiment. Participants were asked to read a text about a murder and respond to questions. There were 4 possible conditions to which participants could be randomly assigned, created by using all possible independent variable combinations: “Genre” (fiction, nonfiction) and “Question Type” (engaging, nonengaging). The story content was the same across groups, but participants were led to believe it was either a fictional story or a nonfictional report. The discussion questions either asked about participants’ feelings or surface-level content. Empathy was measured on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. The analysis showed no significant main or interaction effects of genre and question type on empathy. Future research should focus on understanding people’s perceptions of fiction vs. nonfiction independent of narrative style in order to assess the real-world benefits of empathy as a result of fiction.

Keywords: Fiction, nonfiction, belief, engagement, empathy, theory of mind

Research conducted and report written by Mimi Thompson in Spring 2020 for coursework as part of "Psychology Research Methods Practicum". Please reach out ( if you have any questions about the method or results, or wish to provide feedback and ideas for follow up studies! 

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