Date of Award

Spring 2022

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Psychology, PhD

Program

School of Social Science, Politics, and Evaluation

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Kendall Bronk

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Jeanne Nakamura

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Saida Heshmati

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Keith Oatley

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2022 Caleb H Mitchell

Abstract

Empathy is the social glue that holds people together, and one way to enhance empathy is through reading fiction. Though reading can enhance empathy, there is little understanding of the mechanisms by which it does so. The purpose of this dissertation is to investigate how time spent reading enhances empathy. I posit that two reading experience variables, narrative transportation and reading flow, mediate the relationship between reading and empathy. This is because transportation, feeling absorbed into a story, helps bring characters to life and increases readers’ emotional connections, and reading flow, a balance between skill and challenge while reading, can increase enjoyment of reading and promote cognitive engagement with stories. In addition to testing these relationships, the present study aimed to link reading to prosocial outcomes (e.g., donating). I conducted a longitudinal (27-day) diary study using a quasi-experimental design with a group of adult, self-described avid readers and book club members (n = 111) who reported about their reading activities, and a control group (n = 100) who reported about their leisure activities. I used multilevel Bayesian path analysis to test narrative transportation and reading flow as mediators of the relationship between time spent reading and empathy and emotion recognition. I did not find evidence for a relationship between time spent reading and empathy and emotion recognition nor did I find evidence for the hypothesized mediation. Empathy did not change across the study. Emotion recognition did, however, and it was predicted by lifelong reading, suggesting that lifelong reading can influence changes in emotion recognition, or theory of mind. Reading did not predict donation behavior, failing to link reading to prosocial behavior, but empathic concern, a facet of empathy, did predict donation behavior. Overall, the relationship between reading and empathy is complex. Reading in the long-term is likely to consistently exercise theory of mind abilities and improve them, though the process by which it does so was not detectable across the one month’s time spent reading in this study. Though there was no conclusive explanation for the lack of relationship between time spent reading and empathy, one possibility is that reading does not enhance empathy, as defined here, but rather theory of mind abilities. Another possibility is that the effect of reading across one month’s time attenuates with age and greater lifelong reading. The results also highlight the challenges in accurately assessing facets of empathy, given the proliferation of empathy measures used in the field. Based on analysis of readers’ descriptions of how reading impacted them, the wide array of fiction available to readers can enhance empathy, but present results make clear there are important developmental and measurement issues that should be considered in future studies investigating specifically how reading enhances empathy.

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