Tag Archives: research

How Fantasy Builds Real-Life Empathy

by Andy Peloquin

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s perspective on fantasy (and all speculative fiction): “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Some people would say, “But surely something that makes you escape the real world won’t have any real-life applications! It’s no better than a video game or movie.”

Well, try this on for a real-life application: fantasy (and all fiction) helps to create empathy for others, and encourages us to help others.

A study from Washington and Lee University put this to the test. They read participants a short 15-minute story, a story written with the intention of showcasing PRO-social behavior and encouraging empathetic and compassionate feelings for others.

After the reading, the experimenter would drop six pens, then record whether or not the participant helped to pick up the pens. The result was clear: the more engaged the participant was in the story, the more likely they were to help. They empathized with the characters in the story, and thus they empathized with people around them.

At the core of every story is a character or characters that the author wants YOU to empathize with. Whether it’s a half-demon assassin, a thief girl, a stuffy Victorian noble, or a hard-boiled detective, the story was crafted with the intention of connecting you to the character. Over the course of the story, you feel their feelings, think their thoughts, and experience what they experience. By the end of the book, you’re connected to them and empathizing with their feelings.

But the empathetic connection doesn’t always end when you put down the book. The more time you spend in those characters’ heads and the more deeply you are drawn into the story, the easier it is to feel that bond. Even if you have nothing in common with the character, you were bonded to them through the story. When you go out into the world and you find yourself interacting with people that share characteristics with the characters from the book, you find yourself empathizing with them on a subconscious level.

The researchers in this study didn’t ask the participants to help pick up the pens; instead, they read a story that encouraged the type of behavior desired and left it up to the participants’ brains to make the connection. Our mind is hard-wired to connect with others, and forming an empathetic bond with fictional characters can help us to form bonds with real people as well. The more we read, the more characters we are exposed to. Over time, that leads us to “connecting” with an even broader range of people and situations. When we find something similar in real life, we are able to empathize and share that connection in a real way.