Can Reading Fiction Help Lawyers Develop More Empathy?

A growing body of research suggests that reading fiction increases your capacity for empathy. The basic idea is that imagining the emotional world of fictional characters is good practice for empathizing with actual humans. (See “Novel Finding: Reading Fiction Improves Empathy.”

For example, have you noticed that when you read a favorite novel you’re able to feel what the characters are feeling? It happens so naturally, we don’t realize this is strange. The characters aren’t real, you’ve never met them, and they’re often doing things you could never do (especially in thrillers, horror or fantasy — e.g., John Grisham, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling).

This is great news, right? An easy way for lawyers to develop more empathy.

But can you see the challenge?

Reading Fictional Minds

The challenge is that reading fiction makes you feel like you can know, with literal clarity, what other people are thinking. Indeed, this is one of the most appealing things about great novels.

Here is an example from Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend:”

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. Of course, I would have liked the nice manners that the teacher and the priest preached, but I felt that those ways were not suited to our neighborhood, even if you were a girl.

Two things to notice about this passage. First, notice all the ways the writer lets you know, as a reader, what’s going on for this character: how she felt, what she wanted, thought, imagined and desired.

The second thing to notice is your reaction to reading that passage. I’ll bet you didn’t think it was at all strange to have access to the character’s interior monologue. Why would it? You’ve been reading fiction like this for most of your life.

In which case — and with great respect — reading fiction is making you crazy.

Fiction Is Crazy

In real life, you can never know what’s going on in another person’s mind. (The best you can do is ask.) But that’s not the only illusion fiction works on your brain.

There’s also the problem of narrative.

What you read in a book is heavily edited and revised, through dozens of drafts, to create a neat, coherent, digestible story. Novels are like emotional pabulum: authors chew-up life experience to regurgitate into readers’ brains.

The point is not to diminish the effort and beauty of great writing. The point is who does the work of describing lived experience.

The passage above presents one interpretation of certain events in the character’s childhood. It’s a plausible interpretation, but you read it as the only interpretation.

Is that what your life is like — especially in your legal practice? Univalent, unambiguous cause and effect?

Of course not.

In fact, I’ll bet many of the misunderstandings you encounter are caused by someone failing to appreciate that their interpretation of events is not the only reasonable interpretation of events.

Getting Better at Reading (and Life)

If you’re a lawyer who likes to read, there are two ways keep bad habits in check.

First, read with awareness. Put a Post-it note on the book’s cover to remind you that in real life you need to ask what’s going on for other people.

Second, read with other people. One of the great things about book clubs is the opportunity to discuss different interpretations of the same text. Realizing your favorite character is completely unbelievable to another person is maybe the best thing that reading fiction can do for your legal practice.

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