Exploring the link between reading fiction
and empathy: Ruling out individual differences
and examining outcomes
RAYMOND A. MAR, KEITH OATLEY and JORDAN B. PETERSON
E-mails: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers of fiction tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of
mind (Mar et al., 2006). We present a study designed to replicate this
finding, rule out one possible explanation, and extend the assessment of
social outcomes. In order to rule out the role of personality, we first iden-
tified Openness as the most consistent correlate. This trait was then statis-
tically controlled for, along with two other important individual differences:
the tendency to be drawn into stories and gender. Even after accounting
for these variables, fiction exposure still predicted performance on an em-
pathy task. Extending these results, we also found that exposure to fiction
was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in
contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social
Keywords: empathy, reading, narrative, depression, big five personality,
We spend an enormous amount of our leisure time engaged with fictional
narratives. Our free time revolves around fictional stories, whether it be
the morning comic strip, the novel we read on the subway on the way
to work, the television show we watch after dinner, or the book that
waits for us on our nightstand. Despite the prominent role that these
experiences play in our lives surprisingly little psychological research has
been devoted to this topic. The necessity of mending this situation, how-
ever, is gradually gaining attention (Miall, 2000; Mar and Oatley, 2008).
Our engagement with fictional narratives is interesting not just for the
prominent place these stories appear to have in our lives, but also be-
cause the experience we undergo while engaging with them is unique.
When reading a novel or watching a film we become immersed in the
world presented to us (Nell, 1988), transported to new places with new
people (Gerrig, 1993). In these narrative worlds we experience a simu-
Communications 34 (2009), 407⫺428 03412059/2009/034⫺0407
DOI 10.1515/COMM.2009.025 쑕Walter de Gruyter
408 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
lated reality and feel real emotions in response to the conflicts and rela-
tionships of story characters (Oatley, 1994). Stories thus appear to offer
us a deeply-felt simulation of social experience (Oatley, 1999) that may
hold real consequences for our actual social world (Mar and Oatley,
2008; Mar, Oatley, and Djikic, 2008). Specifically, engaging with narra-
tive fiction and mentally simulating the social experiences represented
may improve or maintain social skills, especially skills of empathy and
social understanding. Consistent with this idea, our group has shown
that frequent readers of narrative fiction perform better on two different
empathy tasks, whereas frequent readers of expository non-fiction per-
form worse (Mar et al., 2006).
There are, of course, several possible explanations for this observed
relation between reading fiction and empathy (Mar et al., 2006). While
reading fiction, the simulation of social experience that occurs might
engage the same social-cognitive processes employed during real-world
social comprehension (e. g., mental inference, tracking of goals, emotion
recognition). Repeated simulation of this kind, then, could lead to a
honing of these social and empathic processes, which in turn could be
applied to other contexts outside of reading. Another possibility is that
readers of fiction learn concrete social information from books, acquir-
ing knowledge about human psychology. In contrast with the first pro-
posal, here we make a content versus process distinction. Lastly, the
relation between fiction and empathy might be explained by individual
differences. That is, certain traits may predict greater enjoyment of fic-
tion, and also better empathic accuracy. This last hypothesis seems to be
the least interesting possible explanation, and it is this explanation that
we seek to rule out in the current study.
The somewhat surprising nature of our finding that reading fiction
predicts empathic accuracy, and the fact that it is based on correlation,
necessitates a more detailed investigation of this effect. First, the pos-
sibility that individual differences can account for the association be-
tween exposure to narrative fiction and empathy needs to be ruled out.
Second, examining the potential real-world social correlates of narrative
fiction is necessary if we are to increase our confidence that the validity
of this relation extends beyond our original measures.
Our previous study demonstrated that exposure to narrative fiction was
linearly and positively related to social ability, after controlling for age,
experience with English, general intelligence (g) and exposure to exposi-
tory nonfiction. However, there are several other potential individual
Fiction and empathy 409
difference variables that need to be ruled out before pursuing the pos-
sibility of a causal association. Key among these is trait personality.
The Big Five Model is the most widely used and extensively validated
model of personality. It is composed of Extraversion, Agreeableness,
Conscientiousness, Neuroticism (reversed, Emotional Stability), and
Openness to experience (Costa and Macrae, 1992; John and Srivastava,
1999). Recent publications have highlighted the importance of demon-
strating discriminant validity with respect to these personality dimen-
sions. There is growing evidence, for example, that the Emotional Intelli-
gence construct, clearly related to social ability, can be largely accounted
for by measures of trait Agreeableness, in conjunction with gender and
g(corrected multiple r⫽.81, Schulte, Ree, and Carretta, 2004; see also
Nettelbeck, Bastian, and Burns, 2007). Demonstrating that Emotional
Intelligence can achieve incremental validity beyond personality and
cognitive ability has thus become a fundamental issue for those inter-
ested in this construct (e. g., Petrides, Pe
´lez, and Furnham,
2007). As another example, Locus of Control, Self-esteem, and Self-effi-
cacy may all represent the same core construct: trait Neuroticism (Judge,
Erez, Bono, and Thoresen, 2002; cf. Mar, DeYoung, Higgins, and Pe-
terson, 2006). Thus, it appears increasingly necessary to ensure (1) that
hypothetical variables are not merely variants of known personality
traits, regardless of their name and (2) to demonstrate that identified
relationships between such variables cannot be attributed to well-estab-
lished measures of personality. In the context of the current study, it is
important to demonstrate that our measure of exposure to narrative
fiction isn’t simply tapping some other individual difference variable.
With regard to the observed relation between fiction exposure and
empathy, a number of Big Five traits could theoretically account for this
association. Extraversion, for example, represents attraction toward and
facility with social interactions (e. g., Jensen-Campbell et al., 2002).
Highly outgoing individuals, who crave social contact, might also be
interested in immersing themselves in fictional social worlds (despite the
apparent decrease in real-world social contact such pursuits might en-
Agreeableness, a tendency toward empathic and prosocial responses
(e. g., Koole et al., 2001), is also a likely candidate. Individuals high on
this trait are likely to manifest the empathy required to understand fic-
tional characters making narrative engagement more real and perhaps
more pleasurable or interesting. Agreeable individuals are also likely to
perform better on measures of social ability.
Finally, trait Openness may play an explanatory role. Openness is as-
sociated with imaginative tendencies, curiosity, intellectual endeavors,
and creativity. Imagination is essential for narrative comprehension, al-
410 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
lowing us to vividly render the surroundings and situations being pre-
sented to us in literary fiction. This capacity may also aid perspective-
taking, allowing us to place ourselves in the shoes of story protagonists
and better understand other people (Taylor and Carlson, 1997).
The first step in testing whether reading predicts social ability beyond
Big Five personality is to examine the trait correlates of reading fiction
and non-fiction. Few previous studies have examined this question, with
previous work focusing on engagement with media such as television or
film (e. g., Weaver, 1991; Hall, 2005). What research does exist on read-
ing is somewhat mixed, with most studies reporting positive associations
between reading fiction and Openness (Finn, 1997; McManus and Furn-
ham, 2006; Tirre and Dixit, 1995), with inconsistent relations to Extra-
version and Agreeableness (Finn, 1997; Tirre and Dixit, 1995). Three
studies from our own lab found that Openness was indeed the only con-
sistent correlate of exposure to narrative fiction
. It appears that this
trait is the most important factor of personality to rule out as accounting
for the relation between reading fiction and social abilities.
Another important individual difference variable to control for is the
tendency to be drawn into fictional narratives (Gerrig, 1993). Those
more prone to these immersive and simulative experiences are logically
more likely to seek them out. At the same time, this same capacity to be
drawn into the representation of fictional characters could help us to
improve our understanding of real others ⫺and to perform better on
tasks that measure social abilities. Controlling for this construct in our
analyses will allow us to rule out the possibility that this tendency to-
ward narrative engagement can explain the relation between reading fic-
tion and empathic ability.
The last individual difference to take into account is gender. Women
are more likely to be readers (Statistics Canada, 1998), and are also more
empathic (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004; Davis, 1980). To ensure
that the observed relation between reading and empathy is not simply a
function of gender, this variable needs to be controlled for in the statisti-
Another useful extension of the previous finding is an examination of
whether exposure to narrative fiction has any real-world social corre-
lates, apart from improved performance on laboratory empathy tasks.
If the greater social ability of frequent readers observed previously can
be generalized to the real world, we would expect that readers might
have a larger social network, less loneliness, and less depression. It is
worth noting that this hypothesis is in direct contradiction of the stereo-
Fiction and empathy 411
type of a bookworm (England and Petro, 1998). Bookworms are often
seen as turning to literature and fictional characters in order to compen-
sate for the absence of real-world peers, immersing themselves in an
imaginary social world due to the lack of an actual social network.
Along with social awkwardness, frequent readers are often seen as hav-
ing fewer friends, being socially isolated, and experiencing more depres-
sion, loneliness, and stress as a result. Our own conception of readers,
however, predicts just the opposite.
In this paper we further examine the nature of the association between
exposure to narrative fiction and empathy, from two perspectives. First,
we statistically control for three important individual difference vari-
ables, in order to rule out the possibility that the effects observed are
merely a function of Openness, narrative engagement, or gender. Sec-
ondly, we turn from ruling out alternative accounts to the further investi-
gation of social outcomes. Specifically, we investigate correlates pertain-
ing to social network size, social support, loneliness, and depression.
A total of 252 participants completed the study. Individuals were re-
moved from the analysis because they were missing data due to com-
puter error (N⫽18, 7.1 % of the sample population) or human error
(N⫽4, 1.6 %) during testing. Individuals with less than 9 years of Eng-
lish fluency (N⫽5, 2.0 %) were also removed, resulting in a final sample
of 225 persons (175 females), ranging in age from 17 to 38 years,
M⫽18.9, SD ⫽2.8. The majority had learned English as their first
language, N⫽203, 90.2 %. Participants gave consent after learning the
aim of the study. After completing all the measures (order randomized
for each person), participants were debriefed and compensated for their
Materials and procedure
Author Recognition Test (ART). Because erudition is so closely tied to
intelligence and sophistication in our culture, self-report assessments of
reading are vulnerable to biased responding (West, Stanovich, and
Mitchell, 1993). The original ART, developed by Stanovich and West
(1989), overcame this issue by employing a task-based approach that
412 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
relies upon a signal detection logic, allowing for a more objective rather
than subjective assessment. Respondents are asked to check off from a
list of names those that they recognize as authors. They are explicitly
told, however, that a number of the items are fake or foils (i. e., names
that are not those of authors), so guessing (or indiscriminate checking)
can easily be detected. While this does not provide a direct measure of
the amount of reading a person has done, it is a measure of how much
exposure to print an individual has had, which has been found to corre-
late strongly with book-reading and related behaviours (West et al.,
1993). Even if participants have not read a specific author, they are likely
to have learned about the person by reading reviews, discussing authors
they like, or browsing in bookstores and libraries ⫺all behaviors highly
associated with reading itself. Checklist measures of print-exposure have
been extensively validated. Scores on the ART are predicted by early
reading ability (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997), and predict actual
observed reading behavior (West et al., 1993), reading skills (Stanovich
and West, 1989), and acquisition of knowledge controlling for cognitive
ability (Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993; West et al., 1993). Versions
of the ART checklist have demonstrated better predictive validity than
more conventional self-report questionnaires (Allen, Cipielewski and
Stanovich, 1992, Se
´chal, LeFevre, Hudson, and Lawson, 1996), and
validity equal to daily diary approaches (Allen et al., 1992).
Mar and colleagues (2006) revised the ART, creating the two subscales
used in the present study: (1) an assessment of exposure to narrative
fiction (50 names, divided into 5 genres, such as thrillers, romance nov-
els, and science fiction), and (2) a measure of exposure to non-narrative
expository nonfiction (50 names across 5 genres, including philosophy,
business, and science). We also included 40 foils. This version of the
ART has been validated, demonstrating better prediction of vocabulary
than self-report measures of reading (Mar, Oatley and Peterson, 2008).
Big Five Inventory (BFI). Personality was measured using the Big Five
Inventory (BFI; John and Srivastava, 1999), a well-validated 44-item
measure of personality based on the Big Five model.
Self-report measure of fantasy. The Fantasy subscale of the Interpersonal
Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980) was employed to measure partici-
pants’ trait tendency to be transported into a narrative. Although the
scale author originally conceptualized this subscale as an aspect of empa-
thy, examination of the items reveals that this measure can be more
accurately described as an assessment of one’s tendency to become im-
mersed in narrative (see Table 1). This measure includes a total of 7
items, and only one item does not directly refer to immersion in narrative
Fiction and empathy 413
Table 1 . Items of the IRI Fantasy subscale.
1 I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might
happen to me.
2 I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
3 I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I don’t often
get completely caught up in it.*
4 Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare
5 After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the
6 When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of
a leading character.
7 When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would
feel if the events in the story were happening to me.
Item 1 was removed from all analyses in this study.
media (item 1). This is also the only item whose removal increases the
scale’s internal reliability (Chronbach’s alpha). Thus, for theoretical and
empirical reasons, this item was not included in the current analyses,
improving face validity and scale reliability. (The two versions of this
subscale are highly correlated, however, r⫽.98, p<.05.) Respondents
rated the degree to which the statements were self-descriptive using a
five-point Likert scale. As a trait measure, this scale is distinct from more
common state measures of narrative transportation (e. g., Green and
Brock, 2000). While another trait measure of transportation exists (Dal
Cin, Zanna, and Fong, 2004), the authors were not aware of it at the
time of this data collection. Subsequent data from our lab has shown
these two scales to be highly correlated, r⫽.62, p<.05; N⫽260 (un-
Mind-in-the-Eyes task (MIE). Self-reported social acumen suffers from
a variety of limitations. Most notably, respondents are expected to have
access to accurate meta-cognitive evaluations of their own social ability.
Reporting these assessments without bias motivated by social desirability
is a second hurdle to accurate measurement. We thus relied on an objec-
tive task-based measure of empathy (an adult measure of theory of
mind) for our study. The MIE requires respondents to examine still pic-
tures of actors’ eye-regions and choose which of four possible mental
states is being represented (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, and
Plumb, 2001). Prior to the task all participants are familiarized with a
list of the mental state terms that will be presented, controlling for differ-
414 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
ences in vocabulary. This list remains accessible to the individual during
testing for their reference. Individuals with autism or Asperger syn-
drome, who are often characterized by severe social deficits, perform
worse on this measure than IQ-matched controls (Baron-Cohen et al.,
2001), demonstrating that performance is independent of intelligence.
Along parallel lines, in a normal population, performance on this task
is negatively correlated with scores on a measure of autism-spectrum
disorder symptomatology (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Using an earlier
version of this test (Baron-Cohen, Jolliffe, Mortimore, and Robertson,
1997), patients with frontal lobe dementia were found to perform worse
than both normal controls and patients with Alzheimer’s; this dementia
group also underperformed on other theory-of-mind tests (Gregory et
al., 2002). Lastly, a brain imaging study found that regions previously
associated with numerous other mental-inference tasks are activated
when normally developing individuals attempt to infer the mental states
of the persons depicted in the MIE materials (Platek, Keenan, Gallup
Jr., and Mohamed, 2004).
Social isolation and loneliness. In order to investigate the social out-
comes associated with reading narrative fiction, measures of social net-
work and social support were administered. If readers have better social
abilities, we would also expect them perhaps to have a larger social net-
work and perceive more social support. The measures employed to assess
these variables included: (1) the Social Network Index (SNI; Cohen,
Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, and Gwaltney, 1997) which yields a score for the
number of high contact roles a person possesses (of 12 possible), along
with a score for the number of people within his or her social network;
and (2) the Interpersonal Support Evaluation List⫺College Version
(ISEL; Cohen and Hoberman, 1983), which requires respondents to indi-
cate whether the items are either “Probably True” or “Probably False”
in relation to their selves for four subscales: (i) Tangible (perceived avail-
ability of material aid), (ii) Appraisal (perceived availability of someone
to talk to), (iii) Belonging (perceived availability of people to engage in
activities with), and (iv) Self-Esteem (perceived positive sense of self in
comparison to others).
Measures of loneliness, stress and depression were also included, to
see if readers experience less social isolation. These variables were mea-
sured using: (1) the UCLA Loneliness Inventory (UCLA-LI; Russell,
1996), which taps the degree to which someone feels connected to those
around him or her, as indicated by their self-reported frequency of cer-
tain thoughts or feelings, using a four-point Likert scale; (2) the Per-
ceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen, Karmark, and Mermelstein, 1983),
which examines stress and coping responses by requiring respondents to
Fiction and empathy 415
indicate the frequency of certain thoughts and emotions using a five-
point Likert scale; and (3) the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck,
1988), a widely-used measure of clinical depression, in which each item
requires respondents to indicate which of four statements is self-applica-
ble. Because these social outcomes are somewhat distal from social abili-
ties and empathy, the effects involving these variables are expected to be
smaller and may even be absent.
Scale scores and gender differences
Participants checked very few of the foil items on the ART (M⫽1.1,
SD ⫽1.9), 91.6 % of the sample checked three or fewer foils. The reliabil-
ity for Fiction (Cronbach’s α⫽.90) and Non-Fiction (Cronbach’s α⫽
.82) in this sample was high. Reliability for the slightly revised Fantasy
measure was also high, Cronbach’s α⫽.81. Reliabilities for the other
measures are reported in source articles. For all analyses reported, all
ps<.05 (two-tailed) unless stated otherwise.
No statistically significant differences in personality were found
between the sexes in this sample, all ps>.05; Openness: M⫽3.6,
SD ⫽.31; Extraversion: M⫽3.3, SD ⫽.73; Agreeableness: M⫽3.8,
SD ⫽.57; Conscientiousness: M⫽3.5, SD ⫽.64; Emotional Stability:
M⫽2.9, SD ⫽.69. However, gender differences were observed on a
number of the other variables measured. Males scored lower on fiction
print-exposure (d⫽0.54; t⫽⫺4.40; M
social ability task (MIE: d⫽0.65; t⫽⫺4.04; M
27.8), and rated themselves lower on the measure of narrative engage-
ment, IRI Fantasy: d⫽0.40; t⫽⫺2.47; M
With respect to self-reported stress and social support, males scored
lower on only one measure, seeing themselves as less likely than females
to have someone to talk to, ISE Appraisal: d⫽0.58; t⫽⫺3.14; M
⫽9.8. Gender was thus covaried out for all of the following
analyses, except in those cases where separate analyses were conducted
for males and females.
Raw correlations between print-exposure and social ability
The number of foils checked by each participant was subtracted from
the number of valid names recognized on the ART, to form corrected
indices of exposure to narrative fiction and expository non-fiction. Pear-
son correlations were then calculated between these scores and the social
ability measure, for the total sample and for each gender (see Table 2).
416 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
Table 2 . Inter-scale correlations for measures of print-exposure and social ability by
ART-NF MIE IRI-FS BFI-O BFI-C BFI-E BFI-A BFI-ES
ART-FC .60* .21* .17* .22* .09 ⴚ.04 ⴚ.07 .02
.64* .16* .09 .24* .06 ⫺.07 ⫺.06 .05
(.50*) (.15) (.42*) (.14) (.09) (⫺.14) (⫺.22) (.01)
ART-NF .08 .04 .20* .09 ⴚ.02 ⴚ.05 ⴚ.01
.09 .01 .24* .11 ⫺.02 ⫺.02 .01
(.05) (.20) (.06) (.01) (⫺.05) (⫺.14) (⫺.06)
MIE .21* .15* ⴚ.02 ⴚ.03 ⴚ.04 ⴚ.14*
.17* .17* ⫺.01 ⫺.02 ⫺.03 ⫺.10
(.20) (.08) (⫺.14) (⫺.22) (⫺.13) (⫺.17)
IRI-FS .26* ⴚ.04 .09 .06 ⴚ.07
.27* ⫺.04 .07 .08 ⫺.03
(.24) (⫺.08) (.13) (⫺.05) (⫺.10)
BFI-O .10 .16* .01 .13
.08 .17* .01 .13
(.16) (.10) (.02) (.11)
BFI-C .17* .28* .27*
.13 .26* .19*
(.31*) (.34*) (.62*)
BFI-E .08 .31*
Notes: *p<.05. ART-FC ⫽ART Fiction, ART-NF ⫽ART Nonfiction, IRI-FS ⫽
IRI Fantasy, BFI-O ⫽Openness, BFI-C ⫽Conscientiousness, BFI-E ⫽Extraversion,
BFI-A ⫽Agreeableness, BFI-ES ⫽Emotional Stability. Numbers in bold represent
the entire sample. Coefficients not in bold are for females only (N ⫽175). Coefficients
for males reported in parentheses (N ⫽50).
Full sample. Although exposure to narrative fiction and expository non-
fiction were highly correlated, Fiction was associated with the empathy
task (the MIE), whereas Nonfiction was not. This difference in associa-
tion was statistically significant, t(222) ⫽2.22. Moreover, the magnitude
of this association was not trivial, falling as it does within the middle
third of all effect-sizes observed in psychology, for measures that employ
different methods (Hemphill, 2003).
In line with the findings of our pilot work
, trait Openness was the
only personality factor associated with fiction print-exposure. Perform-
ance on the MIE task was also correlated with Openness, making this
trait the most important personality factor to control for statistically, in
order to rule out the possibility that trait personality is responsible for
the association observed between exposure to narrative fiction and so-
Fiction and empathy 417
IRI Fantasy was also correlated with the empathy task, indicating
that individuals who find themselves more easily drawn into narratives
perform better than others when asked to infer the mental states of target
individuals. Since Fantasy was also related to exposure to narrative fic-
tion, it also appears to be an important individual difference variable to
Gender differences. Correlation magnitudes between males and females
in this sample were tested for statistically significant differences (Steiger,
1980). A tendency toward narrative engagement predicted exposure to
narrative fiction to a greater degree in males relative to females, r
.33, Z⫽⫺2.17. It thus appears that an ability to see oneself in a story
and simulate the experiences described is more important for predicting
the reading behavior of men than women. This may explain the gender
difference in reading behavior between the sexes (Statistics Canada,
1998), or it may simply be a reflection of cultural expectations. Perhaps
young children are acculturated with the idea that reading is an appro-
priate activity for females but less so for males, and only a strong natural
imaginative tendency can overcome these implicit messages for males.
Association between print-exposure and empathy: Ruling out the role
of individual differences
In order to rule out the possibility that the association between exposure
to narrative fiction and empathy can be explained by individual differ-
ences, we conducted a hierarchical linear regression predicting MIE
scores, with control variables entered in the first block and exposure to
narrative fiction entered in the second block. First, a composite variable
averaging age and years of English fluency was created, due to their
high correlation (r⫽.86) and concerns regarding multicollinearity. This
variable, along with gender, Openness, and IRI Fantasy scores were en-
tered in the first block, and ART⫺Fiction entered in the second block.
The results of this analysis are presented in Table 3.
In the first block, gender and Fantasy scores were both unique predic-
tors of performance on the MIE task. When fiction print-exposure was
entered into the second block, it was identified as a unique predictor,
and the addition of this variable yielded a statistically significant increase
in variance accounted for by the model, F(1, 219) ⫽3.94. In this model,
gender remained a unique predictor, with Fantasy just failing to attain
statistical significance (p⫽.06). Thus, exposure to narrative fiction pre-
dicts performance on an empathy task, controlling for age, gender, Eng-
lish fluency, trait Openness, and tendency to become immersed in fiction.
418 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
Table 3 . Regression showing prediction of MIE scores by fiction print-exposure, con-
trolling for gender, age, years of English fluency, trait Openness, and tendency to become
immersed in fiction.
Variable BSE βt
Model 1 Gender 2.08 .57 .24 3.67*
⫽.11 Fantasy .64 .30 .14 2.10*
F(4, 220) ⫽6.82* Openness .69 .41 .11 1.71
AgeFluency ⫺.08 .08 ⫺.06 ⫺.97
Model 2 Fiction .07 .04 .14 1.99*
⫽.13 Gender 1.8 .58 .21 3.11*
F(5, 219) ⫽6.31* Fantasy .58 .30 .13 1.93
Openness .56 .41 .09 1.37
AgeFluency ⫺.11 .08 ⫺.09 ⫺1.39
Exposure to fiction or nonfiction, social support, loneliness, and stress
In order to examine whether individuals who read more see themselves
as having a larger social network and experiencing less negative affect as
a result, correlations between lifetime exposure to fiction or nonfiction
texts and the various measures of support and stress were calculated.
Because some of these variables violated the normality assumption re-
quired for the calculation of a Pearson correlation coefficient (i.e., ISE
Tangible, ISE Appraisal, and the BDI), a nonparametric statistic (Spear-
man’s rho) was employed to examine these associations. Table 4 presents
the results of this analysis for both the total sample, and for the two gen-
Full sample. More frequent readers did not report fewer or more individ-
uals in their social network, nor did they report fewer or more high-
contact social roles. Exposure to nonfiction, however, was negatively
related to the measure of self-perceived belongingness (ISE Belonging)
whereas exposure to fiction was unrelated, and this difference was almost
statistically significant (Steiger, 1980), t(222) ⫽1.92, p⫽.06. Nonfiction
was also positively related to self-reported loneliness (UCLA), whereas
fiction was not related, and this difference was statistically significant,
. In contrast, those who were exposed to more narrative
fiction saw themselves as having more people available to talk to (higher
scores on ISE Appraisal), and those exposed to more nonfiction exhib-
ited no such relation, t(222) ⫽2.22. The general picture, then, is that
there is no evidence that frequent reading has any substantial impact on
social support and associated loneliness or depression. Tentatively, it
Fiction and empathy 419
Table 4. Inter-scale correlations (Spearman’s rho) for measures of print-exposure, social support, loneliness and stress.
Print Exposure Social support Loneliness Stress
ART- ART- SNI SNI ISE ISE ISE ISE UCLA BDI PSS
FC NF role number tangible belonging appraisal SE
ART-FC .48* .05 .13 .00 ⴚ.01 .13* .02 .04 ⴚ.08 ⴚ.10
.51* .03 .13 ⫺.04 ⫺.01 .06 .07 .06 ⫺.12 ⫺.16*
(.45*) (.01) (.13) (.02) (⫺.13) (.19) (⫺.02) (.08) (⫺.02) (⫺.06)
ART-NF ⴚ.02 .04 ⴚ.04 ⴚ.14* ⴚ.02 ⴚ.10 .21* .09 ⴚ.03
.04 .05 ⫺.07 ⫺.11* ⫺.01 ⫺.01 .19* .04 ⫺.06
(⫺.23) (⫺.02) (.06) (⫺.23) (⫺.05) (⫺.24) (.27) (.27) (.10)
SNI .59* .14* .24* .15* .21* ⴚ.22* ⴚ.04 ⴚ.11
role .57* .17* .25* .12 .26* ⫺.21* ⫺.02 ⫺.09
(.66*) (.08) (.21) (.27) (.10) (⫺.29*) (⫺.13) (⫺.24)
SNI .30* .46* .28* .30* ⴚ.31* ⴚ.21* ⴚ.21*
number .33* .51* .28* .35* ⫺.34* ⫺.18* ⫺.19*
(.20) (.26) (.32*) (.12) (⫺.19) (⫺.28*) (⫺.29*)
ISE .50* .30* .22* ⴚ.33* ⴚ.20* ⴚ.17*
tangible .49* .27* .19* ⫺.29* ⫺.17* ⫺.18*
(.51*) (.35*) (.36*) (⫺.47*) (⫺.35*) (⫺.23*)
ISE .42* .42* ⴚ.58* ⴚ.37* ⴚ.44*
belonging .39* .42* ⫺.58* ⫺.35* ⫺.44*
(.49*) (.47*) (⫺.59*) (⫺.50*) (⫺.50*)
ISE .23* ⴚ.47* ⴚ.27* ⴚ.25*
appraisal .28* ⫺.44* ⫺.28* ⫺.28*
(.13) (⫺.55*) (⫺.53*) (⫺.45*)
ISE ⴚ.52* ⴚ.49* ⴚ.44*
Self-esteem ⫺.52* ⫺.47 ⫺.43*
(⫺.54*) (⫺.53*) (⫺.45*)
UCLA .55* .51*
Notes: *p<.05. ART-FC ⫽ART Fiction, ART-NF ⫽ART Nonfiction. Numbers in bold represent the entire sample. Coefficients not in bold
are for females only (N ⫽175). Coefficients for males reported in parentheses (N ⫽50).
420 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
might be said that there appears to be some positive association between
exposure to narrative fiction and more social support, and a negative
association for exposure to nonfiction. In light of the social measures
for which no association was found, however, this interpretation should
be viewed with caution.
Gender differences. As before, differences between males and females for
these associations were examined for statistical significance (Steiger,
1980). For males, exposure to nonfiction was negatively correlated with
the number of high contact roles. This was not the case for females,
|⫽.27, Z⫽1.67, p⫽.05. Nonfiction was also more negatively
associated with self-esteem and more positively correlated with depres-
sion for males relative to females, although these differences just failed
to reach threshold for statistical significance, ISE Self-esteem: |ρ
.23, Z⫽1.43, p⫽.08; BDI: |ρ
|⫽.23, Z⫽1.44, p⫽.08.
Exposure to expository nonfiction thus appears to be a stronger pre-
dictor of negative social outcomes for males relative to females. The
causal direction of this association, of course, cannot be determined.
Males who feel depressed, have low self-esteem, and have fewer friends
whom they see often, may seek solace in nonfiction texts or their avid
interest in nonfiction may exclude them socially, resulting in negative
affect and lower self-esteem.
The previous finding by Mar and colleagues (2006), of an association
between reading fiction and levels of empathy, might be explained by a
number of possible theories. One possibility is that fiction readers simply
have particular personality traits that also make them more empathetic.
In order to rule out the possibility that trait personality could be respon-
sible for the association between narrative fiction and social ability, we
set out to find the individual differences most highly correlated with
fiction reading. In pilot studies and the extant literature we found that
narrative fiction reading is related to the Big Five trait of Openness to
Experience, but not consistently with any other trait
. In this study we
attempted to rule out the possibility that this trait can explain the rela-
tion between fiction reading and empathy. We also set out to account
for a more specific individual difference, the tendency to feel transported
into the world of a narrative, as well as gender. Hierarchical linear re-
gressions demonstrated that fiction print-exposure predicts performance
on an empathy task, even after gender, age, English fluency, trait Open-
ness, and trait Fantasy are statistically controlled. This finding helps to
rule out the possibility that mere individual differences are responsible
Fiction and empathy 421
for the observed association between fiction exposure and empathy. Our
confidence in this assertion has increased further in light of our previous
work, which ruled out the potential role of intelligence and non-fiction
reading (Mar et al., 2006). Also in this study, the social life of frequent
readers was explored, moving beyond empathy to other social variables
such as loneliness and social network size. Nonfiction was positively
associated with loneliness and negatively related to belongingness,
whereas fiction was related to self-perceived availability of confidants.
Moreover, the association between exposure to nonfiction and loneliness
should not be considered trivial, as it is equivalent to the median effect-
size for studies in personality (Fraley and Marks, 2007). Overall, how-
ever, there were no consistent associations with social network, depres-
sion, and perceived stress.
Ruling out Big Five personality
The data from this study show that it is not merely the case that individ-
uals who are more open to experience tend to enjoy fiction more and
also perform better on tests of empathy. Examining the role of trait
personality is an important step in any research program, and in doing
so, we have ruled out one major possible explanation for the positive
relation between narrative fiction and empathy. Across the previous
study (Mar et al., 2006) and the current one, we have taken a conserva-
tive approach, by looking at the incremental prediction of exposure to
narrative fiction beyond numerous individual difference variables,
increasing our confidence in the reliability and robustness of this associa-
Narrative transportation and empathy
The self-reported tendency to become highly absorbed in fictional pro-
ducts such as literature and movies is related to both empathy and narra-
tive fiction print-exposure. In our hierarchical regression, trait Fantasy
was an independent predictor of empathy ability, controlling for a vari-
ety of individual difference variables including one’s exposure to narra-
It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist
in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental
states. It has recently been observed that a very similar pattern of brain
activity underlies such diverse cognitive processes as autobiographical
memory, future-thinking, spatial navigation and mental inferencing, and
that this network may represent self-projection (Buckner and Carroll,
2007; Spreng, Mar, and Kim, 2009). This network also appears to be
422 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
important for story comprehension (Mar, 2004; Ferstl, Neumann, Bog-
ler, and von Cramon, 2008), indicating that a single process, perhaps
self-projection, could support both mental inferencing and story compre-
hension. In children, imaginative abilities are related to the development
of social comprehension (Taylor and Carlson, 1997), and in adults this
capacity to really empathize with fiction appears to explain, in part, why
fiction-reading habits relate to social skills.
Of course, the precise role of this individual difference variable has yet
to be determined. Reading could improve our tendency to “get into”
stories, and also understand others. Or, those who are naturally more
inclined to feel transported by fiction, may read more and thus become
better at understanding others. The fact that this prediction was demon-
strated in a multiple regression model that included Openness is particu-
larly interesting, as it demonstrates that the construct of narrative trans-
portation or fantasy is something unique from what is captured by this
The social world of readers
The stereotype of a bookworm as socially awkward and lonely was fur-
ther challenged by the data in this study, which provided convergent
evidence to bolster our findings regarding empathic abilities. Frequent
readers do not report smaller social networks or more loneliness and
stress. What we observed was another separation between exposure to
narrative fiction and expository nonfiction. Reading narrative fiction
was associated with more social support and reading expository nonfic-
tion was related to less social support and more stress. This finding must
be interpreted cautiously, however, in light of the fact that these relations
were not consistent across measures of social support. An interesting
gender difference also emerged, in that exposure to expository nonfiction
was more associated with negative outcomes (less social support, lower
self-esteem and more depression) in males than in females.
Because we measured perceived social support rather than objective
social support, some interesting possibilities emerge for explaining why
individuals exposed to more narrative fiction feel they have more people
available to speak to. Perhaps these individuals are drawing support
from the fictional characters that they encounter in novels, engaging in a
form of parasocial relationship. A desire for social contact may motivate
anthropomorphization, or the tendency to see fictional characters as
possessing agency and personality (Epley, Waytz and Cacciopo, 2007).
Research has demonstrated that favourite television characters can influ-
ence us in a manner similar to real peers, particularly if they are seen as
“real” (Gardner and Knowles, 2008). Findings that people who are feel-
Fiction and empathy 423
ing lonely may be more likely to watch television are also consistent with
this idea (Derrick, Gabriel, and Hugenberg, 2009; Jonason, Webster, and
Lindsey, 2008). Exploring whether these same effects hold for the reading
of narrative fiction would seem to be an interesting possibility for fu-
It must be noted that one result from the previous work by Mar and
colleagues (2006) was not directly replicated in the current study. We did
not find a negative association between exposure to expository nonfic-
tion and empathy (cf. Mar et al., 2006). In this sample, the partial corre-
lation between exposure to nonfiction and the MIE, similar to that em-
ployed by Mar and colleagues (2006), reveals no statistically significant
association, pr ⫽⫺.03, p>.05. It is unclear why this effect was not
found in this sample, and this is something that certainly deserves careful
attention. It is worth noting, however, that in this sample exposure to
expository nonfiction was associated with loneliness and a low sense of
belonging, symptoms consistent with poor social abilities. Moreover, the
social ability task that was most negatively associated with exposure to
nonfiction in the previous study (Mar et al., 2006), the Interpersonal
Perception Task-15 (Costanzo and Archer, 1993), was not included here.
Future studies should experimentally investigate the causal direction of
the observed association between exposure to narrative fiction and social
ability, since such inferences cannot be derived from correlational stud-
ies. One potential approach might involve participants being assigned a
diet of fiction over some weeks along with pre- and post-manipulation
assessments of social skills. More direct examinations of the two remain-
ing hypothesized mechanisms (i. e., direct transfer of social knowledge
and honing of social cognitive processes) are necessary.
Subsequent studies should also incorporate a more diverse sample,
since most research to date has employed undergraduate students. The
restricted range of this group may mean that the current findings are
underestimates of any effect in the general population. A university stu-
dent population is more likely to contain frequent readers than the gene-
ral population at large. Our pilot work, however, did confirm that the
personality correlates of reading are largely identical for undergraduate
and older populations
There may be some concern with how to interpret the association
between IRI Fantasy and the MIE. One might argue that since both
are measures of empathy, the positive correlation between the two is
completely unsurprising and therefore uninteresting. However, examina-
tion of both of these measures reveals that they are quite dissimilar and
424 Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson
likely should not be considered equivalent measures of the same latent
construct. The MIE involves pairing mental-state terms to pictures of a
person’s eye-region, whereas the IRI Fantasy scale asks respondents to
self-report their own tendency to become deeply involved in books and
film (see Table 1). That these two measures are correlated is interesting,
and congruent with various theories put forward relating empathy to
fiction (e. g., Keen, 2006; Mar and Oatley, 2008; Zillmann, 1994). From
the perspective of this study, which controlled for IRI Fantasy in order
to rule out trait differences, even if Fantasy is interpreted as a form
of empathy directly related to narrative experience, controlling for this
construct makes the continued prediction of empathy by reading even
There is growing evidence that reading narratives, even those explicitly
labeled as fiction, is far from a meaningless leisure activity that ends
when one closes the cover of a book (Green, Strange, and Brock, 2002).
Several researchers have demonstrated that exposure to narrative fiction
can influence our attitudes toward various issues (Green, 2004; Green
and Brock, 2000; Prentice, Gerrig, and Bailis, 1997; Strange and Leung,
1999). From these findings as well as those reported here and previously
(Mar et al., 2006), evidence is accumulating that the reading of narrative
fiction can have important consequences, whose quality and underlying
mechanisms require closer study.
Raymond A. Mar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychol-
ogy at York University, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, ON, Canada M3J 1P3.
Keith Oatley is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Human De-
velopment and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, 252
Bloor Street W., Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 1V6.
Jordan Peterson is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the
University of Toronto, 100 St. George St., Toronto, ON, Canada M5S
1. Pilot work examining three separate samples (N⫽188; N⫽636; N⫽158) from
both University undergraduate and community samples (ESCS dataset; Goldberg,
1999) found that Openness was the most consistent unique predictor of exposure
Fiction and empathy 425
to narrative fiction. Analyses conducted using the NEO PI-R facets (Costa and
McCrae, 1992) were congruent with factor-level associations. For more details,
please see supplementary material at: http://www.yorku.ca/mar/papers/
2. Because the nonfiction print-exposure measure included self-help as a genre, it is
possible that exposure to this particular form of nonfiction was driving the ob-
served associations for loneliness and lack of social support. However, when this
category of book was removed from the calculation of Nonfiction, the new variable
correlated highly with the total Nonfiction score (r⫽.94) and the pattern of results
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