According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “Fiction is empathy technology.” In other words, by enabling readers to imagine themselves in others’ shoes, literature makes society as a whole more empathetic. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argues that societal violence has declined over the last several centuries in part because of the rise of novels and other fiction.
New studies in cognitive psychology are showing something similar. One study showed that people’s personalities fluctuate significantly more after reading a story by Chekhov than a report of similar length and difficulty. This suggests that fiction nudges people to consider their own personalities – and themselves – in new ways.
A subsequent study refined this conclusion: it isn’t fiction vs. nonfiction that is the relevant distinction, but artistic vs. not artistic. That is, a story describing Little Red Riding Hood’s harrowing adventure in the forest has more potential to make an impression on you than does a news story that reports the facts about Little Red Riding Hood’s trip. The difference is not in content, but something more “meta”: the perceived degree of creativity trapped in the language.
A third study, published just last month, integrates several findings into a psychological theory of artistic literature. It argues that stories immerse you in a simulated social world. Imagining yourself interacting with others, just like real socializing, can alter how you conceive of yourself.
The instrument that tweaks your personality is no particular kernel of meaning in a piece of literature. Instead, it is an indirect force, a layer of artistry overlying substance, which causes internal shifts.
This notion of literature is at least partially at odds with established conceptions of communication. Precedent and common sense decree that the core of impactful writing is its ideas. An author who makes an airtight argument should generate more empathy in readers than one who is unpersuasive. Martin Luther didn’t make people more moral by dazzling them with his artistry; he wrote a list of points to convince people to behave differently.
The studies suggest that artistry may be more psychologically impactful than logic. Argument engages our rational faculties, but the large irrational realms of our minds are swayed more by secondary characteristics. In a protein, the order of amino acid building blocks contains crucial information. But just as important for the protein’s function is how the underlying sequence is folded together into a three-dimensional structure. Stories are like this: a novel’s words are an essential base, but the author’s artistic choices, registered subconsciously, are vessels of communication that are equally – if not more – valuable.
Advising people to treat others as they would like to be treated is one way to convey the golden rule. But perhaps the more powerful method of instruction is one that involves no instruction at all, but instead simply provides an opportunity for imagination.
Julia Rothchild is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.
(Featured image from here.)