Most of us have seen it: in 2013, a famous study reported that reading fiction makes people more empathetic. Many of us have even shared the article. Those of us who are readers or writers may even have felt a sense of satisfaction in learning that our hobbies and passions help us become better people.
If you search online for “reading makes people more empathetic” you’ll find countless articles based on that 2013 study, including articles only a few months old. A wealth of articles reiterating this study’s findings might even strengthen our beliefs that reading does, in fact, makes us empathetic. Although they draw on a single source, multiple articles create the impression of multiple attestations.
But there’s a problem: a subsequent experiment has failed to reproduce the results of that original experiment, which could indicate flawed methodology. Assuming the methodology isn’t flawed, we’ve also got to consider the distinction between correlation and causation. As we know, correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation.
The study was centered around an RMET (Reading the Mind in the Eyes) Test. Here’s how it worked: participants in the experiment would select a story, read it, then examine photographs of eyes and try to determine the sensations those people were experiencing—simply by looking at their eyes. Those who read more “literary” works seemed to score higher. The researchers concluded that reading literary fiction—not genre fiction, we should note—can make people more empathetic.
When a different group of researchers attempted to replicate this study—using the same stories and the RMET test—they didn’t produce the same results. Their findings did show that people who read literary fiction scored slightly higher on RMET tests than those who didn’t. This distinction might be subtle but it’s important.
The original authors didn’t take any variables into consideration when inferring their conclusion. Isn’t it just as probable that people more prone to empathy might gravitate toward literary fiction? Isn’t it also probable—it’s certainly at least possible—that reading literary fiction and scoring well on the RMET test are entirely coincidental, perhaps the product of a variable not even considered?
Isn’t it also probable that the RMET test itself is flawed? How can a researcher assert that the participant nailed the emotion expressed in the eyes as a result of implicit understanding and not a guess? It’s possible that some of the participants weren’t certain and guessed the emotions correctly.
The reliability of the RMET test even comes under scrutiny every now and then.
Also, no universal mean seems to exist. If this test was valid, it’d eventually yield a mean score over an extended period of time. While most researchers agree that the mean is 30—out of 36—some agree that it’s lower, anywhere from 23 to 26. If we can’t establish a mean, then how can we assert with confidence that someone has scored above average—i.e. above the mean?
If for our purposes we assume the mean is 30, and for the sake of argument say that readers scored between 31-33, then can we definitively concluded that reading literary fiction increases the likelihood that we can infer a person’s emotional state by simply looking into their eyes? To my mind, this conclusion only makes sense if we could someone bracket the Theory of Mind and peoples’ innate abilities to read facial cues.
We can tell, on a non-conscious level, when someone is genuinely smiling and when they’re faking it. Even if we have a hard time articulating why we think their smiles aren’t sincere, we can read the eyes non-consciously. A genuine smile involves more facial muscles than a feigned smile. As a result, the skin around the eyes stretch and pull back. It’s a subtle effect but noticeable once you’re aware of it. Fake smiles usually can’t reproduce this effect, which is often so subtle that we can read it non-consciously without understanding it on a conscious level.
Another problem with the RMET test is that it employs photographs of the eyes of actors feigning emotional states—i.e., of inauthentic states. If even great actors can’t or won’t or don’t manipulate subtle changes, then we can typically distinguish between a genuine and a fake smile.
If we’re put in a situation in which we’re told to look at a picture and expected to answer a question concerning the mental state of that person, if we can question their state on a non-conscious level, and if we can then answer the question we’re expected to answer by pointing out a state an actor is feigning, then how can anyone assume that we’re picking up on mental states that we can’t with any certainty ascribe to actors paid to feign such states?
How does this single study—which, as we’ve said, hasn’t been replicated—continually find its way into articles promoting the usefulness of reading w/r/t inculcating empathy?
Perhaps it has more to do with confirmation bias than with sound science.
For most readers, we know in our heart of hearts that reading is worthwhile, especially in an age of rampant anti-intellectualism. Our willingness to embrace any scientific study confirming our intuition only increases, especially in a culture in which reading fiction has become marginalized. But embracing flawed science to promote our points of view helps to contribute to anti-intellectualism, not extinguish it.
Two studies contradict each other. More are needed. We should withhold judgment one way or the other and view information favoring our views with healthy doses of skepticism.
Comment below and tell me what you think or to poke holes in my argument. Please share this article if you liked it. And consider taking a moment to check out my GoFundMe campaign, which you can read more about here.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.