Reading fiction is one of the most important things you can do, and science can prove it. Here’s why a good fantasy or sci-fi has the power to make the world a better place.
I truly believe that the problems facing our world stem from a lack of compassion — prejudice, inequality, the treatment of animals and the environment, even nasty comments on social media. If everyone had more concern over others’ suffering, the world would be a better place.
Good news: science shows that reading books makes us more compassionate. Stories make us see the world through someone else’s eyes, to feel what they feel, to understand their dreams, fears, and struggles. Stories teach us empathy. Here’s some science:
- Fiction makes us more receptive to different thoughts and beliefs. A 2013 study showed that reading literary fiction (i.e. fiction that focuses on the character’s thoughts and feelings) made participants more likely to understand that someone else’s beliefs can be different from our own.
- Fiction makes us less prejudiced. A 2014 study showed that kids who read Harry Potter are more likely to recognize and reject prejudice in real life. It makes sense: look at the way Voldemort and his supporters consider pureblood wizards to be above others. Today, stories are shifting toward more diverse characters, which means we have the best opportunity ever to understand someone of a different age, race, gender, and body.
- Fiction makes us understand another person’s suffering. A 2011 study showed that people who read about an experience activate the same neurons as if they’re actually living it. It’s an enlightening experience to go on an epic adventure, even if it is inside your head. When we feel a character’s struggle in a story, it makes us more likely to be empathetic in real life.
- Fiction makes us better at social interactions. In 2018, psychologists analyzed a bunch of experiments on this topic and found that after reading just one story, people show better social cognition, i.e. the ability to understand and interact with people.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of scientific articles and studies to support the above points. I also think fiction makes us understand that change is inevitable and good, because in nearly all story arcs, the character undergoes a big change and comes out better for it. We learn a lot about others and ourselves by reading a story. There’s no arguing it: fiction makes us better people.
Can’t you also learn empathy from movies and TV?
Movies and TV don’t get into characters’ heads as much as books do. In a film, we’re watching someone—same as in real life. In a book, we get inside the characters’ heads, understanding their motivations, feelings, and secrets. Books empower us to experience the story rather than to simply watch it happen to someone else.
What about nonfiction?
Nonfiction is great for learning things and bettering yourself. I love a good biography or self-help book. But nonfiction is less effective at making people more compassionate, and the above studies provide evidence. Besides, good fiction has real themes. The story might involve fantasy elements, but it’s really about human struggles we can all relate to.
In defense of speculative fiction
A lot of people, including agents, publishers, and film/TV awards, shun fantasy/sci-fi in favor of realistic or literary stories. But how many people have been motivated to be a better person because of a superhero they identify with? How many people have been inspired to become scientists because of a sci-fi? What about the lessons we learn from a war between fantasy races? Fantasy and sci-fi are ideal for teaching empathy because the fictional setting means the reader won’t get defensive about whatever social issues are being addressed. The power of speculative fiction is real and should not be underestimated.
Your challenge: introduce someone to reading
Are there people in your life who don’t read fiction? See if you can get them to read your favorite book. Personally, I’ve found Harry Potter to be the best gateway. Lend them your copy, or better yet, get them the audiobook to listen to on their commute. You’ll help save the world, and plus, you get to watch them experience your favorite book for the first time – and seriously, there’s nothing better.
What do you think? Do you agree that reading fiction can make the world a better place?