Bibliotherapy for (Recovering) Jerks

Posted by jlubans on November 22, 2016

Caption. Illustration by Julia Mehoke, 2014

I’ve spent some time recently musing about jerks. (Use the search box to find the half dozen or so essays.)
One of my resolutions for a future blog was to tell you how I – when I was a manager – dealt or did not deal with jerks. Two or three personalities come to mind immediately – jerks do make an impression - but I will delay those stories for another time.
Instead, I want to mention Susan Pinker’s article in a recent Wall Street Journal, “Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”,
in which she argues that people who read highbrow fiction are better equipped to show empathy for others.
And, in support of her contention, she cites some important psychological research.
If you have read this blog you know that I am suspicious of this research because of recent incidents of outright fakery and fraud and the more troubling, a broad inability in the field to reproduce study results.
But, some of it surely must be OK, even if a bit biased, so it still may illuminate (however flickering the candle) important aspects of our lives.
If there’s one thing that sets jerks aside it is their inability “to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.” Perhaps there is an empathy/jerkitude ratio:
The less empathy, the more jerkitude. The more empathy, the less jerkiness.
Would it not be nice, if by working through a reading list, one could become more empathetic?
By the way, empathy has been identified as of signal importance for leaders, so my suggestion is not limited to my becoming a better person (a sweetheart) by improving my empathy level. Doing so, I can also be a better leader to the benefit of my organization.
Pinker found that: “fiction reading predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction.” Bookworms turn into butterflies.
The odd thing in this research is that the opposite was found for readers of non-fiction. Little empathy and more loneliness. That’s a puzzle to me, perhaps not to you.
Maybe it is gender driven? Women have their book clubs (what men do?) and women have, I believe, far greater networks of friends that men do.
I know a man who is an exception to this observation, but he reads non-fiction more than fiction. However, he does make use of his reading in conversations to live “large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere”.
To paraphrase Pinker, I think it is still unclear if reading fiction fosters empathy or empathy fosters interest in fiction. Yes, the research studies suggest heightened empathy from reading but perhaps the base empathy had to be there to begin with.
In any case, I do think if a person who wonders why he has few friends or envies those who can converse on the latest literary happenings, there is nothing to stop that person from becoming literarily conversant. Just follow the several bestseller lists. You may not end up “living large in the social sphere”, but at least you will have an idea of what people are talking about. And, if you are willing to lower your jerk quotient, fiction might help you improve your score.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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