How stories develop empathy: Peter Gray
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How stories develop empathy: Peter Gray

Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College (Massachusetts, USA) has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He also authors a regular blog called Freedom to Learn, for Psychology Today magazine. He speaks to us about the role of reading in developing empathy:

Empathy is believed, by many psychologists, to be the biological foundation for morality.  To empathise is to see the world, to some degree, from another person’s point of view and to experience, at least partly, what that person is experiencing.  Sensing and in some way feeling the sadness or fear of another person is a first step toward wanting to help that person, and feeling the joy of another is reward for helping to bring that joy. Even infants show a primitive form of empathy, for example, when one cries in response to another’s crying.  As children develop, their capacity for empathy can either grow or atrophy depending on conditions, and it can develop along various lines, also depending on conditions.  One set of conditions that may play a crucial role in the growth of empathy consists of the stories that children hear or, later, read.

"In fiction, where we cannot alter what happens,

all we can do is feel, reflect, and think"

Fritz Breithaupt, a specialist in German literature, has suggested that fiction is a powerful vehicle for the development of empathy because the listeners (or readers) automatically identify with one or more of the story’s characters. In identifying, the listener experiences vicariously the sorrows, joys, triumphs, defeats, and ethical conflicts of the protagonist — and maybe those of the antagonist, too. So, immersion in a story can be a continuous exercise in empathy. We not only learn what each Little Pig or Harry Potter do, but we also feel something of what they would feel if they were real. The listener cannot act within the story and affect the outcome, but can experience the emotions and reflect on those emotions.

Because listening or reading is mentally active, but physically passive, it promotes thought and reflection that may not occur so much in real life.  In real life, the drive to action, or the stress induced, or the ego defences that are raised, may shortcut reflection. But in fiction, where we cannot alter what happens, all we can do is feel, reflect, and think. In the process we may learn to care about people whom we might not otherwise care so much about, including people who are quite different from ourselves.


A number of research studies, with children, as well as with adults, support the view that stories promote the development of empathy.  One series of studies by Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley and colleagues, showed that people who have read a great deal of fiction—especially fiction of the type that deals with interpersonal relationships--score higher on various measures of empathy than do otherwise similar people whose reading centres more on non-fiction than fiction.  In an experiment conducted in a low-income area of Toronto in Canada by Joan Peskin and Janet Wilde Astington, the capacity of 4-year-olds to take another person’s perspective and reason from that perspective increased greatly as a result of an intervention in which they heard many stories read to them by parents, teachers, and research assistants.

"When you read stories to your children,

you provide them with wonderful opportunities for moral growth"

In another experiment conducted by Phyllis Katz & Sue Rosenberg Zalk in the United States in the 1970s, the attitudes of white children toward black children improved significantly as a result of hearing a story in which the protagonist was a black child. And in yet another US experiment in the 1960s by John Litcher and David Johnson, white second graders who read stories from a ‘multi-racial’ book manifested more positive attitudes toward African Americans, including a greater tendency to identify with them and include them in their own group, than did those who read stories from a traditional storybook where all the children were white.

So, when you read stories to your children, you may be providing them with wonderful opportunities for moral growth.  As they listen to stories, children imagine ways of behaving when faced with real problems in the real world, and they learn to see things from others’ points of view.  Stories help children overcome narcissism, expand their social world, and learn to identify with a broader range of other people.


Reading and telling stories with the children in your life is one of the most powerful gifts you can give them. It builds their knowledge, language ability and imagination, helping children to become motivated and curious learners with greater capacity to succeed at school. For more information about our  ‘Story Power’ campaign or to download our benefits of-reading handout (available in six South African languages), visit our resource section.

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