Read Fiction, Develop Empathy

A study by a Washington and Lee University psychology professor has demonstrated that reading a short work of fiction can lead readers to empathize with the work’s characters, to detect subtle emotional expressions more effectively and to engage in pro-social behavior.

Dan Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Washington and Lee, published the results of his study in the November 2011 edition of the journal “Personality and Individual Differences.”

With the help of three W&L students — senior psychology majors Lauren Borden (Lake Leelanau, Mich.) and Grace Cushman (Wilton, Conn.) and sophomore Madison McCune (Nacogdoches, Texas) — Johnson had 200 subjects read a five-page fictional short story written specifically for the experiment, designed to elicit compassionate feelings for the characters and model pro-social behavior. The subjects then participated in exercises to measure the impact of the reading.

Based on the results of the post-reading exercises, Johnson concluded that the more immersed the readers were in the story, the more empathy they felt for the characters. In addition, he found that the heightened empathy led to an enhanced ability to perceive subtle emotional expressions such as fear or happiness. Individuals who experienced higher levels of empathy were also nearly twice as likely to engage in pro-social, or helpful, behavior as individuals experiencing low levels of empathy.

“An interesting component is that it really seemed to be a lot about the imagery and visualizing the face of the main character and the events they experienced,” said Johnson. “Those who experienced more inherent imagery were more likely to develop empathy for the characters and be more helpful.”

To finish reading Sarah Tschiggfrie’s article, click here.


  1. Amazing. It goes to show that details really matter in a story. I most recently read a novel that did a poor job of establishing a connection between readers and characters. I couldn’t get into the story because the characters had no depth. I know this study you’re referring to is saying a lot more and I’m barely scratching the surface, but detail really matter. Drawing the reader in should be the main objective of a writer.



    1. Kashif, you’re right. How can the author keep a reader through the story if the reader disengages? We have to relate to the character or, at least, be extremely patient. Most readers, even when patient, need to connect.



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