Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes

Raymond A. Mar 1 , Keith Oatley 2 , and Jordan B. Peterson 3
  • 1 Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, ON, Canada M3J 1P3. E-mail: mar@yorku.ca
  • 2 Professor Emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street W., Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 1V6. E-mail: keith.oatley@utoronto.ca
  • 3 Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, 100 St. George St., Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3G3. E-mail: jordanbpeterson@yahoo.com


Readers of fiction tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind (Mar et al., Journal of Personality 74: 1047–1078, 2006). We present a study designed to replicate this finding, rule out one possible explanation, and extend the assessment of social outcomes. In order to rule out the role of personality, we first identified Openness as the most consistent correlate. This trait was then statistically controlled for, along with two other important individual differences: the tendency to be drawn into stories and gender. Even after accounting for these variables, fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task. Extending these results, we also found that exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.

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