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« A "Duh" moment | Main | The Blue Skunk Seal of Approval »

Building the capacity for empathy

"I feel your pain." President Clinton

Stephen (Lighthouse) Abrams pointed out a fascinating article about how reading fiction builds social skills and empathy:

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.

Their years of research ... has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts.

I suppose for most readers, especially librarians and English teachers, this is a "Well, duh!" sort of conclusion. But it is gratifying to have our observations confirmed.

Empathy? Social acumen? Necessary for surviving and thriving? Our national associations and gurus seem to think so.

From NETS 2007:

Students ... develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures. ...use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.

From  AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner 2007 ...

Students will: Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions. social responsibility by participating actively with others in learning situations and by contributing questions and ideas during group discussions.

From Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind:

Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.

The unsung hero of success is empathy. Understanding the needs and desires of others is critical for leaders, salesmen, politicians, lotharios, preachers, CEOs, writers, teachers, consultants ... well, just about everybody. The better one understands others, the more effective one can meet their needs, appeal to their self-interests or, I suppose, manipulate them. And with a global economy, our empathy needs to extend beyond our next door neighbor.

boyreader.jpgThe question is, then, can empathy be learned - and how? Is there a small muscle somewhere in the mind or soul that can be exercised, stretched and built that allows us to more fully place ourselves in others' shoes?

Reading fiction - especially when the setting is another culture, another time - has to be the best means of building empathic sensibilities. How do you understand prejudice if you are not of a group subject to discrimination? How do you know the problems faced by gays if you are straight? How does it feel to be hungry, orphaned, or terrified when you've always lived a middle-class life? Harnessing the detail, drama, emotion, and immediacy of "the story," fiction informs the heart as well as the mind.

Viewing the world through the eyes of a narrator completely unlike oneself, draws into sharp detail the differences, but also the similarities of the narrator and reader. And it is by linking ourselves through similarities - common human traits - that we come to know others as people, not just stereotypes.

Unfortunately, as school budgets are stretched, school library funds that purchase quality fiction and school library professionals who select and promote quality fiction are too easily axed, replaced by reading programs, specialists and tests of basic comprehension.

The question is never asked: If one can read but is not changed by reading, why bother?

Maybe I will scrap my plans for reading Shirkey, Suriwiki, et. al. this summer and pull up a few good novels on the Kindle instead...

Oh, my nominee for best empathy building novel I've read recently is Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Reading it left me with a better understanding of autism and autistic children. A recent empathy builder you can recommend?

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Reader Comments (19)

Along the lines of Curious Incident is Moon's The Speed of Dark. I also like Patterson's Consumption and Vaught's Big Fat Manifesto

(Consumption is about the consumption of Inuit culture by white culture, consumer culture, etc.; Big Fat Manifesto is about a VERY overweight HS senior with 1. a BIG attitude and 2. a boyfriend that
undergoes gastric by-pass surgery. Clarification by LazyGal. Added by Doug.)

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLazygal

The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich---about Great Lake area indigenous people during the1800s. This particular book expertly does both things: shows many human universals and provides rich and detailed information about a particular group of people in a particular time.

loved this post.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAmy S.

"If one can read but is not changed by reading, why bother?"

Thanks for raising this issue. Too often we lift up comprehension as the ultimate goal of reading instruction when, in reality, understanding what one reads is merely a means to the end of being changed by what one reads.

I would also recommend the Newbery-winning The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars. It was published back in 1970, but the themes are still relevant today. This story helps young readers to develop empathy for persons with mental disabilities and helps first- and last-born children develop empathy for the middle child.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Thanks Doug. Your post inspired me to add a post to my "Library Links for Teachers" Blog, asking our teachers to consider using fiction (and narrative non-fiction) to build empathy and world-view. I have listed a few books from our collection that came to mind.

Why do we have to read novels???

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

Well, first off, I think that for passive learners, reading fiction is the way to learn empathy for others. It's limiting. It only introduces characters with fictional problems, and we hope that students can determine the difference between real life and fiction. If students read enough books that stir the empathetic region of the mind, maybe they can handle any situation they're dealt with in life.Chances are, they'll need just as much life experience.

I think, instead of keeping empathy lessons in the classroom, teachers need to take students out of their element; put them in situations where they don't have much time to think about how to resolve problems. Take them to a soup kitchen to feed people unemployed by the government. Take them to orphanages to tutor kids who've never had an original support system. Fundraise to take a trip to South America and join a nonprofit organization that provides first aid packages, fresh water, and clothing items to people living in slums with tainted freshwater resources.

The classroom is a safehold and contained environment that can teach students about anything, from everyday cooperation to terrorism. No one feels the threat of outside forces. No one gets exposure. Virtual technology is in the progress of simulating real-life situations, but this is only going to cater to the richer and the sheltered. Witnessing anything first-hand will leave a lasting impression on the empathetic mind; moreso than reading a book. This is an act of promoting emotional intelligence, which is used far more than academic intelligence through the span of life.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterL C

My vote for a great empathy-builder goes to "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" by Kate DiCamillo. It's all about a self-centered rabbit who learns how to feel empathy and how to love. The discussions this book brings about are quite amazing. We did it as a K-5 all-school read a couple of years ago and found it worked incredibly well at all levels.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Samec

A great empathy builder for Grade 9's is Speak. It's about a girl who harbours a painful secret through most of her Grade 9 year about a summer time bush party. The climax is electrifying. Laurie Halse Anderson knows how to build up empathy in Melinda, the protagonist, and the struggles of surviving Grade 9.

Curious Incident also resonates with me and my students. Excellent post about an essential way to motivate students.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C.

I just finished reading one of our faculty book club selections for next year. In ""Digging to America", the author, Anne Tyler tells the story of two families adopting infant girls from Korea. When the 2 families meet the plane from Korea bringing their adopted daughters, a friendship and relationship between the families begins. Over the years, as the parents, children, and grand-parents become more deeply entwined, cultures clash, values are challenged, and the American way is seen from the various perspectives of both those who are born here and those who are struggling to fit in.

This book considers what it means to be an American, what the immigrant experience is -- both from the aspect of long-ago immigrants and more recent ones -- along with the international adoption experience. It's a fascinating peek into families and heritage.

Children and YAs need to develop empathy and an understanding of what the "other" experience is but so do adults.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLinda R.

Thanks to all who sent in recommendations. I would agree with Jacquie that good narrative nonfiction would be a good empathy builder as well.

LC, you make some excellent points. Real experiences dealing with others who are different from us will most likely create a more powerful experience. But without really having a conversation that reveals, say, a homeless person's POV, sympathy rather than empathy, might be the result. I would also suggest that field trips and service learning are limited in kinds and types of experiences students will have, whereas reading fiction transcends not just place, but time as well. Kids need BOTH real and reading experiences.

All the best,


July 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

A couple of others: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

July 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMary Woodard

It truly is unfortunate that library funds are being stretched so that librarians are being let go and book funds being cut. I am a school librarian. Each year I get more responsibilities so programs are cut. Our circulation had been going up, but now is going down. We are teaching to the test at all times. It is the kids who suffer in all of this.

July 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Merritt

When you say limited in kinds and types of experiences students will have, I think you're bringing up two important points that I didn't consider. First off, the school system probably only allots school groups to service sites that are within the strictures of affordability and security. An orphanage probably would not be the first choice for a place to visit, just because the environment is so pathological and could possibly scar students and teach them life lessons a bit too soon. (I believe I'm being a little sarcastic at this point). When are schools going to come to the realization that these life experiences shape minds into globally thinking minds? My impression of service learning thus far is that it exists only in order to make the school look good. We must work at a site where there are either too many underlying needs that we have no clout to care for, or there isn't much of a need for financial support or overall help at all.
My second point, or rather yours, is that even real life experiences cannot tap into places students may never see, or take them back in time. We have instructional videos, storytellers, and books for that. I see now that there does need to be a balance of readership and leadership. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I'm sorry I was so narrow-minded. I think I was just in the middle of a PMS bout, and you know that entails some irrationality.

July 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterL C

Fiction certainly can help teach and model empathy. My twin boys enjoy watching "Johnny Test". When I came home from work the boys had built a pillow fort in the living room. My XM radio sits on the table. As they were putting things away Gabe came and told me the XM radio was missing and he was very sorry that he had lost it. Unbeknownst to Gabe I had taken the radio to a different room earlier in the day. I congratulated him on his honesty and told him I was very proud of him. He explained that the same thing had happened to Johnny Test the other day and he was honest with his parents.

Maybe cartoons have some value after all.

July 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie A. Roy

@ Barbara,

Libraries are among a long list of items that are too often seen as "nice extras" rather than vital educational components. I worry that the things that build the kind of right brain skills Pink believe are essential to future success are always the first on the chopping block.

Thanks for the comment,


@ LC,

You never need to apologize for any comment made here that is done so out of compassion for students. As to rethinking issues, reading blogs makes me do this myself on nearly a daily basis!

All the very best,


@ Charlie,

Like most things, it is usually the content rather than the format that gives or limits the value of a thing... Always been a cartoon fan myself, but not sure what values Bugs Bunny or Road Runner imparted!

All the best,


July 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'd like to add one more title to the fray: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. The protagonist's older sister would probably be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder today. However, because the novel is set in 1935, her condition is grossly misunderstood.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Here's one more for your reading lists: Rules by Cynthia Lord. The following is the text from the back cover:

Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She's spent years trying to teach David [her brother] the rules--from 'a peach is not a funny-looking apple' to 'keep your pants on in public'--in order to head off David's embarrassing behaviors.

But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the potential next-door friend she's always wished for, it's her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask, 'What is normal?'

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Terrific internet site:D Will definitely visit soon.

May 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAttevyren

Wonderful writing. Hope to come back soon=D

May 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfoursoribricy

Thanks for the kind words.


May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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