Boys are less likely to read fiction. But could reading provide a way of building men's empathy?

Men have an empathy problem—so let's get boys reading fiction

As charities warn of a crisis in men's health, building empathy among men of all ages is more crucial than ever. One way to do that? Reading fiction
August 30, 2017
I come from a family of chronic film criers. My mom is known for being "teary," wailing into a towel at Bridges of Madison County and repeatedly weeping at Ever After. My little sister infamously cried at the first Ice Age movie when she thought the tiger had died. In the last month, I have pathetically sobbed at the final scene of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. My tendency to cry so easily used to embarrass me; that I, and the other women in my family, would break down at the simplest, most predictable Hollywood plot lines. We’re “tender-hearted,” my mother used to say, which I used to read as code for being overly-sensitive. But what I realise now is that what we actually were, and what we really are, is empathetic. Even though we don’t know these (poorly-developed) characters or lived their fictitious plot-lines, we feel for their losses, cry over their heartbreaks and feel their feelings. This trait, empathy, is widely seen as female. Men, with their tough exteriors, are able to see that what we’re watching is really just Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in front of a studio green screen. This ability to disconnect emotionally is seen as a strength, especially by other men, in pop-culture and in wider society. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, you may be thinking: well, fair enough. But a deeper societal problem lurks here. The problem is not that women are too sensitive, too sweet, and too empathetic; the problem is that men aren’t. Unholy amounts of studies and data over the last twenty years have unearthed the fact that men aren’t, generally, empathetic to their peers. Not only do they not feel very empathetic, but they are growing less and less empathetic year by year. What can we do to solve this? One idea that’s slightly less obvious than extreme social restructuring, feminist lectures and a mass therapy programme is to get them reading. Reading what, specifically? Reading fiction.


Let’s start with the basics. Men’s mental health problems are more widely reported than ever before. In 2013, 78 per cent of suicides committed by over-15s in the UK were committed by men, and one in eight men had a diagnosed common mental disorder. Moreover, the evidence suggests that men, specifically, struggle to share their feelings with friends, which becomes an even bigger problem later in life with studies showing men tend to lose friends if their marriage crumbles, only making matters worse. A huge number of campaigns have been launched to try to treat this “epidemic,” primarily focussing on undoing the social conditioning that tells men their feelings don’t matter and getting them to talk. We also already know that men have an empathy problem. As neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen noted in his study of the male and female brains, women have brains "hardwired for empathy" whereas men lack this deeply engrained neurological trait. Whether made or born, a wide body of research supports the notion that women are more empathetic. A study published in Royal Society Open Science last year affirmed this notion, through an experiment having to do with yawning (a classic determiner of one’s empathy towards others). The study showed that women are significantly more likely to yawn when they see a friend yawn than men are in the same situation—an indication that women are more empathetic to their companions. But most of us probably didn’t need a study to tell us that. You’ll find these statistics spring to life in the form of dinner, drinks, and the work canteen. Whether it’s the women in a group summoning up genuine interest in the lives of their colleagues or a man opening his mouth to wax poetic about his opinions at a dinner party, the fact that women are more sensitive to the feelings of their peers is no secret. Although this may not be the case with every man or every woman, it’s far rarer to see the roles reversed. Fixing this divide is not something that can be undone swiftly, simply, nor very quickly. As Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan notes, there are a myriad of social, political and economic factors that have brought us to where we are today which are too complex to be sorted in one fell swoop. But there is one thing we do know about men and about empathy: we know that fiction increases its reader’s empathy. And we know that men and boys sure as hell aren’t reading it. It’s worth saying that, on the whole, people aren’t reading as much as they used to. Yet women are still more likely to read often, even from a young age. The male-female divide becomes more obvious when you look at the differences in what men and women are reading. Studies show that young boys as well as adult men prefer non-fiction over fiction,and the male appetite for fiction only decreases as they age—especially fiction written by a woman.


Why does this matter? Although non-readers are perfectly capable of being empathic, engaged citizens, we do know that literary fiction can play a huge role in teaching us empathy, particularly early in our lives. One 2013 study showed that while reading non-fiction and popular fiction doesn’t affect a reader’s capacity for empathy, literary fiction caused huge jumps in the reader’s capacity to understand the feelings of other human beings. Because literary fiction focuses in-depth on character’s thoughts and feelings—unlike non-fiction and popular fiction which tend to mostly focus on facts and plot, respectively—the reader is forced to understand a way of seeing, thinking, and feeling that may be entirely alien to their own. (Where Pirates of the Caribbean 3 fits into this study isn’t clear.) Through this focussed, sustained engagement with another person’s set of emotions, the literary fiction reader learns to empathise. This finding was backed, again, as recently as last August when researchers affirmed that literary fiction readers had a far greater capacity to recognise other people’s emotions compared to those who read non-fiction and popular fiction. By reading less and less literary fiction, we are depriving young people—and especially boys—of a key opportunity to learn how to empathise. Now, picking up a piece of Bronte or Kafka at a young age probably wouldn’t have prevented the fruition of the world’s most infamous sociopathic personalities. But the influence of fiction over our emotional maturity is not to be underestimated. Problems with men’s mental health and their inability to speak out, alongside men’s general inability to empathise as well as women, and their loneliness following a loss of friends after a loss of a partner, could be reduced by using fiction to teach boys empathy at a young age; giving them emotional tools that could see them through to late adult life. Of course, you don’t have to become so empathetic as to tear up at a Hollywood-franchise about mystical pirates—but diving into the emotions of someone different through the convenience of a book could be a good place to start.