It's Science! Novels Will Make You A Better, More Empathetic Designer

Mark Wilson

Empathy is a hallmark of good design. New research finds that reading fiction can increase your empathy within a week…but reading the wrong story can have the opposite effect.

Empathy is the act of feeling something with another person—to really put yourself in their shoes. You could make an argument that it’s the most important trait for any designer. Because after all, they’re building things for other people—sometimes shoes, even.

But how can we possibly increase empathy? New research from VU University points to a simple interaction: Reading fiction. The team conducted two studies, each of which had some subjects read fiction (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and José Saramago, specifically) while a control group read nonfiction (which featured a similarly strong narrative focus on a character).

What they found was that, within a mere week’s time, readers of nonfiction were almost always unchanged, while readers of fiction were often either more or less empathetic. So wait, how can reading actually make you less empathetic? Researchers have a theory:

This could be explained because when a reader is not able to identify with a text and does not become transported [into its world], this might lead to disengagement, with the reader being distracted and frustrated…In other words, a reader has to become fully transported into the story to…become more empathic. When a reader is not able to identify with a fictional narrative and does not become transported, this might lead to disengagement, with the reader being distracted and frustrated. When readers disengage from what they read, they possibly become more self-centered and selfish in order to protect the sense of self in relation to others.

Proactively, if you’d like to become a more empathetic person, the most sound advice seems to be to pursue fiction, but don’t keep reading those books that don’t engage you. Just put them down. Otherwise, you’ll begin treating those characters as others, and you might treat other people with the same hands-off attitude as a result.