Reading Makes You Better Than Others

You’re a reader. Doesn’t it feel good to find out that it makes you a better person?

There’s a controversial set of studies that seem to indicate that people who read more are better people (excuse the vague wording). The controversy isn’t over the ethics of the study or anything, but the interpretation of the results. Apparently, the study showed that people who read a short piece of fiction were better at relating to other people, typically by reading someone’s facial expressions more accurately. There was also something about empathy in there. I don’t remember so it looks like I’m going to have to go read the paper again. Yay!

Okay, back. So there’s a lot to digest but it’s all pointing in the same direction. Reading some heavy literature, even just an abstract though, makes you a better person in that it enhances your theory of mind. You understand other people better. That this study was extremely limited is a conversation for other people.

Let’s distance ourselves from the science and philosophy for a second. This result makes sense to most people. I think we want it to be true because it appears to be pretty obvious that people who, essentially, practice taking the perspective of different people would be better at understanding how other people think. It also probably speaks to the part of me, as a reader, that wants to feel superior to non-readers. Not for any inherent need to be better, but because reading takes effort and it would be sort of lame to not be getting anything out of it. If a non-reader is just as well off, well, besides the entertainment, which can be obtained through easier means, like tv and movies, what am I reading for? A lot of us like to take some abstract superiority like “Oh, I’m more cultured and sophisticated.” but it’d be nice to have some improved characteristic. And one that is irrefutably good. It would be hard for those gross non-readers to say it’s better to not understand other people. In what case would it be good?

I’d like to relate to, sympathize with, and feel empathy for, other people. But does reading make me a better person or make me more moral? Probably not. It’s possible I could be better than a non-reader at analyzing another third person’s behavior. Maybe I’m faster to recognize emotional states in someone else. But that doesn’t necessarily make me a better person. Especially because it says nothing about whether or not I act on these things. I could simply understand someone’s sadness more, but that doesn’t make me more moral.

Either way, I don’t see many negatives associated with reading (besides the one about reading artificially happy books coloring our ability to think about how the world actually works.)

The Italian word commuovere captures the sentiment of these studies rather well. It means to be moved in a heartwarming way, usually relating to a story that moved you to tears. (definition taken from Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders). We all sort of feel connected to the people in the stories we read. It’d be nice if it made us better people.


Some sources

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer

Reading Makes You Better Than Others

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