One sweltering day in the late 1880s, journalist and photographer Jacob Riis found his way to a stifling slum tenement on Mott Street in New York. A family sat huddled around a small child who lay still, her breath labored. Their expressions were blank with futility. The little girl wasn’t sick with disease, and she wasn’t injured. She was hungry.
The father’s hands had been crippled by lead poisoning, the mother and one of the four children rendered mostly blind from a simple eye infection. Unable to work, the family depended on small charities. In a desperate attempt to nurse the little one back to health, they had tried to get her to drink ginger ale, bought at great cost.
Riis’ description of the family was published in his book How the Other Half Lives, and for the first time, many of his affluent readers saw the face of starvation up close, in their own city.
Features on slumming—voyeuristic accounts of life in the city’s underbelly—weren’t unusual in newspapers of the time, but most served as sensational entertainment that focused on violence and indecency among the lower classes. Such pieces supported the prevailing perception that poor people were less moral than the rich and had brought their fate upon themselves.
In contrast, Riis sought to humanize the poor. And it worked. Like few before him, Riis elicited empathy and understanding for people who are often disregarded, ignored, or misunderstood by society. While he may be best remembered for his photography, Riis’ work as both a photo and print journalist had impact. His stories effected real social change and helped bolster a budding movement to end poverty.
Riis’ work has long served as a kind of journalistic lodestar. But with pixels and screens increasingly taking the place of ink and paper, research suggests that the way we experience what we read may be altered in profound ways. Screens may decrease the time we dedicate to deep, focused reading—the kind of reading that develops abstract, creative thinking, scientist Maryanne Wolf has noted. Other scientists suggest that the way we process words on screens could even impact how much empathy we feel toward characters in the stories we read. In The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, writer Nicholas Carr even writes that the internet may be “altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.”
Does the shift from print to digital really affect our ability to feel empathy with the characters in journalistic stories? How might that change journalism?
These questions are at the heart of a research project on the future of magazine journalism initiated by the George T. Delacorte Center. As part of our yearlong Delacorte fellowship with CJR, the three of us have shaped and conducted this project to investigate digital media’s largely unexplored potential effects on empathy.
To help us understand this issue, psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Jenna Reinen, a postdoctoral scholar at Yale, has worked with us as a consultant. With her guidance, we have shaped the project into two parts: a review of some of the relevant scientific research and literature on the topic, and an independent experiment, the results of which will be published in CJR’s July/August issue. The experiment will compare the empathic responses of print and digital readers to characters in a 4,000-word magazine article.
What you’re reading is the review. Because the influence digital reading may have on empathy hasn’t previously been studied in depth, this review will build a foundation of knowledge to inform our experiment.
We reviewed various books and more than 60 psychological and neuroscientific studies—which represent some of the most groundbreaking and important research to date on empathy, narratives, and digital reading—conducted by authorities in each field. A full list of references is available below.
The research shows that the human brain naturally supports empathy, but that empathic responses increase as we gather more information about others. Narratives spark feelings of empathy in much the same way, which is why stories have the power to influence minds and motivate action. A second field of academic inquiry suggests that reading time and focus may diminish as our reading habits migrate to screens. Ultimately, that decrease of time and focus could affect how much empathy we feel for characters in stories, some research suggests.
In this review, we’ll begin by knitting together scientific research on empathy, behavior, and the brain. Then we’ll demonstrate how narratives spark empathy. Finally, we’ll explore the effects of digital reading. The result will illuminate the potential consequences of digital media’s impact on empathy, which could have profound effects on the future of journalism.
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT EMPATHY
Imagine that you have been bestowed with the ability to read minds. You can hear what the barista thinks of you as you turn to leave the coffee shop, forgetting to leave a tip. You learn about the man to your right’s broken heart, about the woman to your left’s recent loss of her father. You are bombarded with sentiment—grief, ire, glee. How would you put it to use?
You may not literally be capable of reading people’s thoughts, but you come closer than you may realize, and you do it through empathy. Psychologists and neuroscientists think of this as our natural inclination for “everyday mind reading.” That’s the title of a book by University of Texas at Arlington psychology professor William Ickes, and the term he uses to describe empathy. His point is that empathy is very much like mind reading; it’s the ability to map other people’s emotional and mental terrain based on their words and body language.
You may not be able to hear the litany of names the barista calls you, but you notice her slam the cash register drawer.
Everyday mind reading is based on inference: What is this person most likely thinking and feeling right now? People are good at this, and the more we know about another person, the better we are at it, Ickes shows.
In collaboration with colleagues and graduate students at his university, Ickes put pairs of unwitting strangers in empty waiting rooms for six minutes and videotaped their interactions. Each subject was then asked to watch the video, noting what he or she was thinking throughout the experience, as well as guessing what the other person was thinking. Then Ickes compared the accounts.
Some missed completely, like this pair:
He said: I was thinking that I needed to shave.
She inferred: He was feeling tension because there was no conversation between us.
And there were those who read their partners perfectly, like this pair:
She said: I was feeling embarrassed because it seems like everyone expects you to have a major.
He inferred: She was feeling embarrassed about not having
Ickes found that our ability to read strangers during a six-minute interaction is limited, but other experiments showed that we have much greater accuracy when reading our friends’ behavior. That’s not really shocking, but what is surprising is that when study subjects spent just a little more time with a stranger, their ability to read that person was just as good as their ability to read close friends. The magic time span? Thirty minutes.
Time, or at least the amount of information acquired over time, is crucial to empathy. That is not only the case for real-life encounters, but also for stories.
When we talk about empathy, we often talk about it abstractly, like it’s some emotional aether wafting about our insides. But empathy develops in tangible ways in the brain that neuroscience has made great strides in understanding over the past decade, neuroscientists Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner write in a 2012 article in Nature Neuroscience.
These scientific advances can help us better understand what we have intuitively known for a long time—that journalistic stories can produce empathic responses in readers—and why some suggest that digital reading may be changing those responses.
Neuroscientists Philip L. Jackson and Jean Decety have reviewed the brain research on empathy and describe the main neural processes as the foundation of empathy. For example, when you see someone in distress, you may have an immediate reaction in which you imagine yourself having that same experience. This process is often referred to as “experience sharing.” While experience sharing can be affective and automatic, another crucial process that forms the basis of empathy involves consciously reflecting on another person’s experience, also known as “perspective taking.” Finally, those two processes fuel motivation and action to help improve the other’s situation.
You may not literally be capable of reading people’s thoughts, but you come closer than you may realize.
Now let’s revisit the coffee shop. This time you’re only equipped with your natural human capacity for inferring moods and mindsets. Imagine that you sit down to talk with the woman who lost her father. You listen to her story, watch her body language, and notice her tone of voice. In a split second, your brain produces a kind of inner image of yourself experiencing something similar, your own “representation” of the emotional pain you’re observing in the other person. Further, you actively take her perspective by trying to infer what her experience feels like: She was close with her father. I can imagine how awful it must feel to have lost him. Based on your understanding of her situation, you feel motivated to actively improve her situation: You give her a hug, or offer to bring over dinner.
Experience sharing occurs because your brain engages overlapping neural systems for your own representation of an uncomfortable state, and for the perception of other people experiencing that state. Simply put, one way to understand others’ pain is to form a mental image of your own. At a basic level, our brains intertwine our own and others’ experiences because we are highly social creatures.
Decety and Jackson point to experiments that they believe demonstrate this innate social function of the human brain. In a 1971 experiment by Marvin Simner, replicated numerous times since, infants are exposed to the recorded sounds of other infants crying. The live infants react by immediately wailing away themselves. This is called mimicry, and the authors posit it’s a core function of human behavior. The study concludes that perception and action are intertwined in the brain from birth: The infants hear the sound of crying and that perception triggers their action: I’d better start crying, too.
Adults unconsciously imitate each other’s behavior all the time, from accents, to manners and rates of speech, to movements—which is why yawning is so contagious.
This is more a subconscious action than a deliberately empathic one, but it isn’t random biology either. Mimicry has the adaptive advantage of binding people together, fostering empathy and social cooperation, say Decety and Jackson.
In a 2004 experiment, Rick van Baaren and colleagues found that people were friendlier and more helpful when their manners were imitated. Essentially, they say, we prefer people who are similar to us because we feel we understand them, and we give them preferential treatment.
A sense of similarity is crucial to empathy. Atrocities such as the Holocaust and the genocides of Bosnia or Rwanda were based on social constructions that turned groups of people into “others,” perceived as fundamentally different and thus undeserving of empathy. Likewise, Decety and Jackson summarize a study showing that when people encounter others who are perceived as different, their brains are less likely to produce that spontaneous image of themselves experiencing the same pain as this strange other person.
That is the insight and skill of nonfiction writers such as Jacob Riis, who knew that well-crafted narratives can make readers identify and empathize with characters.
Several of the studies referenced here are based on real or recorded human encounters, but as the following section will show, narrative nonfiction stories can elicit feelings of empathy in much the same way as do bodily interactions. But as our interactions with texts change dramatically and rapidly, could those well-crafted narratives be losing their power?
THE POWER OF STORY
On a winter day in late 2013, 12-year-old Dasani was on a Brooklyn-bound New York City A-train with two of her sisters and their mother, Chanel, when a man sitting across from them looked up from his copy of The New York Times. The man gazed back down at his paper, then took one more look at the family. “Wow, powerful article,” he said after Chanel confirmed that yes, they were the family portrayed in “Invisible Child,” The New York Times’ investigative series on homeless children.
Right before he got off the train, the man opened his wallet and handed the family a $100 bill. “Keep it. Happy Christmas. Do something nice for the kids today,” he told the girls’ mother. Dasani went wild with excitement, Chanel says.
The story’s reporter, Andrea Elliott, says she never could have anticipated such reactions to her story. Her own inbox crashed, while readers sent envelopes of cash to Dasani and her family, and offers for trips to Disney World. Support and donations extended beyond the family and were offered to Dasani’s school, as well as the Brooklyn shelter where they lived.
“Invisible Child” is an example of the power of storytelling. It’s also an example of what motivates many journalists, what we believe is possible through our narratives: to extend empathy for the individual to the group, to correct injustice and inspire change, or at least awareness.
Often, it is magazine-style pieces with a narrative focus and the reporting resources to let characters unfold that really fulfill this potential, as a 2012 study by researchers primarily at Penn State, The Effect of Narrative News Format on Empathy for Stigmatized Groups, suggests. The study asked 399 subjects to read either a narrative or non-narrative version of the same news story.
One of the stories profiled an undocumented immigrant, Alejandro Martinez, who had two fingers amputated due to an accident at his job as a floor manager with a clothing manufacturer. The wound could have been treated and his fingers saved had he been able to afford health insurance and proper medical care. In the narrative version, readers hear directly from both Martinez and his wife; we meet their two children, and the story compares details of his everyday life before and after the accident. The non-narrative story highlights Martinez’ case but uses no direct quotes from him, no scenes, and no personal details.
The study found that readers of the narrative story felt a higher degree of compassion and empathy for Martinez, feelings that extended to undocumented immigrants as a group. Overall, the narrative readers altered their attitudes and opinions positively and were more interested in seeking additional information about the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, or even taking action to help.
Academics explain this narrative effect via something called “transportation theory,” and while you may not be familiar with the term, you know the feeling:
“This was among the most moving stories I have ever read. When Chanel [Dasani’s mother] clasped her hands together in prayer in her new Harlem apartment, I wanted to burst in and celebrate with her and her kids,” wrote Nathaniel from West Orange, NJ, in an online comment on “Invisible Child.”
That’s transportation. Being so engaged in a story that it feels as if you inhabit that space and time, and feeling so connected to the characters that their joys and sorrows spark a physical reaction in you.
It’s a phenomenon that parallels what Ickes showed with his stranger experiment. Scientific findings suggest that when we read and experience characters in a story, the brain processes our understanding of those unknown others similarly to how we understand real, physical others.
The more transported you feel, the more likely you’ll be to change your opinions and beliefs about the real world, psychologists Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock write in The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives. That feeling can be so strong that it leads to altered behavior, such as giving a $100 bill to a family of strangers. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano even suggest that reading narratives make us more empathetic overall, because stories force us to engage in intense perspective taking.
What we intuitively believe to be true about how journalistic stories can spark empathy among readers is backed up by science. The question we’re left with is whether that spark may diminish as our culture turns toward digital.
MATTER OF TIME
A middle-aged woman reaches for the handle of her front door. Her body is rigid and her limbs protrude at sharp angles. Her wheelchair lurches and stops in strange syncopation. Her movements are typical of someone with cerebral palsy.
After several seconds the camera turns to her face, which contorts intermittently. We hear a narrator begin to talk about her childhood.
‘‘I had a few friends who I formed tight relationships with who all of a sudden wouldn’t sit next to me anymore at the lunch table, wouldn’t speak to me when I spoke to them. I was kind of on my own,” she says. “And then as far as intimate relationships, being in a wheelchair, you’re always protected by this chair. There’s armor between you and the opposite sex. So, uh, intimacy’s a difficult thing.’’
She continues: “And I have to be honest, I don’t see myself in a romantic relationship at all. I think that I’ve . . . gotten to this place where a wall is up so much that I don’t even want to go in that direction, ’cause when I do I get sad.’’
This woman was the subject of a minute-and-a-half-long documentary shown to subjects of a University of Southern California study on admiration and compassion. Thirteen people were shown this film, or one of several others, designed to elicit an emotional response. After a short break, they lay inside an MRI scanner that detects changes in blood oxygen in the brain—a measurement related to neural activity. They were asked to recall the story with the help of a five-second cue to jump-start their memory—in this case, an image of the woman and the sound of her voice saying, “I don’t see myself in a romantic relationship at all.” Researchers found that this group showed a response to this statement in the anterior insula, a region of the brain that has also been active in studies where participants processed emotions and physical states.
The same thing happened to the group when they were shown images associated with physical pain—a close-up view of a mid-calf leg break from a nasty soccer tackle, for instance, or a shot of a weightlifter’s left elbow bent backwards, caving under a 350-pound barbell.
The difference between the two tests came in the time it took people to react. When the subjects were shown short documentaries highlighting physical pain, the response in the insula peaked after about six seconds. But when social or psychological pain was the subject, this response took twice as long, a whopping 12 seconds. Though the participant sample was small, the findings were striking: The researchers used statistical analysis to demonstrate that response to compassion for social pain in this brain region was slower than compassion for physical pain. “For some kinds of thought—especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations—we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a University of Southern California associate professor and one of four researchers on the study, in a statement upon its release in 2009. “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states, and that would have implications for your morality.”
Empathy, the ability to connect with other human beings, is critical to moral behavior. But it takes time.
So what are the implications for an industry in which more and more of the work of journalists is being consumed digitally, a form that lends itself to speed? Online, we skim stories and dart from link to link, all while we are bombarded by alerts, emails, chat windows. In essence, according to a 2005 review by Ziming Liu of San Jose State University, the way we read online is fundamentally different from the way we read on paper.
A 2006 study by Karin Foerde and colleagues, for instance, shows that multitasking can alter the way we learn and remember things, both on a behavioral and neural level. In fact, people who frequently multitask online don’t get better at it. According to a 2009 study by Eyal Ophir et al, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, people who spend more time buzzing back and forth on the internet are worse at filtering out irrelevant information and avoiding distraction.
This matters for online reading because humans are known to be bad at “parallel processing”: receiving bits and pieces of unrelated information at the same time. Picture the quintessential hyper-networked teenager, who listens to music on Spotify, browses Tumblr, chats on Facebook, and does homework simultaneously—hardly an exaggeration when Time Inc. commissioned a study, albeit not peer-reviewed, showing that “digital natives” (those who grew up with digital media) switch media platforms on average 27 times per hour.
Similarly, a 2005 study by Lori Bergen and colleagues corroborated this, presented 60 Kansas State University students with CNN broadcasts. Half were shown stories with distractions like tickers, headline crawls, and icons that appeared in the original newscasts, while the other half saw edited excerpts with only the anchor visible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group with the extra distractions remembered 10 percent less of the stories.
Online, not only are we constantly multitasking, but the drain of constantly adjusting to different website designs makes focusing even harder, Swedish and British researchers Erik Wästlund et al showed in 2004. Research is still divided over whether multimedia, which is used frequently online in video, audio, GIFS, and infographics, encodes information more powerfully than a single medium—see Steven C. Rockwell & Loy A. Singleton from 2007 or the work of Allan Paivio. On the other hand, researchers like Anne Mangen et al in 2013 say better comprehension when reading print versus digital media may be related to the way you can conceptualize the text in a book or magazine in physical space.
Studies show that what you expect to get out of a piece of writing affects what you actually get out of it. Put in more effort, and you will process more information, Gavriel Salomon and Tamar Leigh found in 1984, long before the internet. Today, print is still seen as a more serious medium in the US: It’s where magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker put their premium content, and where they pay writers premium rates. On the internet, meanwhile, there is always the sense that something better lies a few clicks away.
Empathy is critical to moral behavior. But it takes time.
On the other hand, there are ways that we adapt to regular reading on the internet. Call it the Google Effect. Psychologists Betsy Sparrow et al from Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed in 2011 that their Harvard undergrad subjects were worse at remembering information but better at remembering how to search for it. Tools like Google have become “an external memory source,” they write, meaning we make less effort to retain information since we know we can summon it with a few clicks.
Despite this wealth of research, the jury is still out on the critical issue of whether we learn more from print or digital media. A review of studies on print versus digital media mostly from the 1980s and early 1990s by the University of Texas at Austin’s Andrew Dillon showed that while findings are mixed, people often read more slowly on a screen and paid less attention to detail, especially for demanding tasks. But the relevance of those studies in today’s media environment is questionable. Computers and smartphones are ubiquitous, and thus the skills needed to read on them may have improved in the last two decades—both in digital “natives” and “immigrants.” Some studies released since have suggested that digital textbooks are just as effective as print for college students. Even as far back as 2008, a study by James A. Shepperd et al that showed students got the same grades regardless of textbook medium. And last year, Guang Chen et al—researchers in Beijing—demonstrated what might have seemed obvious to everyone but techno-skeptics: The more familiar readers were with how to use tablets, the better their comprehension when reading on them.
Understanding how readers comprehend and retain stories is paramount for journalism, as many researchers consider those factors directly related to readers’ ability to empathize. But some of the processes used to digest information in print don’t necessarily apply to today’s readers. Digital reading, it seems, requires a different reading strategy. It requires knowing how to navigate a more dynamic landscape of information.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU READ
Imagine print media as the gridded streets of an endless metropolis, criss-crossed by roads and avenues stretching to the farthest corners of the universe. As you choose what to read, you meander from one street to the other. Your travel is as much about the journey as it is the destination. In one way, this vast expanse is immeasurable. But it’s also constrained, not only by a two-dimensional geography, but also by the four directions people can move to navigate it.
This is how people have consumed print media for centuries: by scanning headlines, tables of contents, or library shelves, choosing and reading stories that grab their interest, and then repeating the process. There are benefits from this reading environment; traveling at length along one street requires both passing through intersections and venturing into new neighborhoods. The great potential of newspapers, for example, is that journalists use them to package information in a way that might seduce people into reading something they typically wouldn’t; the medium exposes them to a wider array of informational avenues in this two-dimensional world. And this can be especially helpful for people who wouldn’t seek out that information otherwise.
When Klaus Schoenbach et al surveyed Dutch online and print newspaper readers for a 2005 study, they found one demographic whose knowledge of public events and issues broadened as a result of frequently reading the hard copy: those with a narrow set of interests. A similar 2011 study of South Koreans by JungAe Yang and Maria Elizabeth Grabe suggests that readers with low levels of formal education comprehend more public affairs news when reading a physical newspaper than when perusing its website. Newspapers, in this sense, might be better suited to interest the uninterested and educate the uneducated on any particular topic.
Grid plans allow for high visibility down city streets, though they also restrict movement to four directions. Travel in this locale is more methodical—if not arduous—though that could also help readers remember what they encounter along the way, and perhaps more than they recall from digital media environments.
Flipping through the pages of a print magazine, for example, is a relatively slow way for readers to find stories that interest them—at least by digital standards. But a 2012 experiment by Robert G. Magee suggested that this sluggish navigation indeed has an upside. The researcher sent nearly 7,000 college graduates either a print or digital edition of their quarterly alumni magazines. Later, 675 of those subjects were asked in a telephone survey first to independently list articles from the magazine, and then to recall whether prompts given by the caller actually appeared in the publication.
Free recall—without a cue—was low across both cohorts. But print readers did collectively remember articles more often than their digital counterparts (.45 stories compared to .16 stories, on average). The former group likewise recalled more pieces when given prompts (3.49 compared to 2.75). The latter finding suggests that print readers browsed the magazine more thoroughly, encountering a greater number of articles along the way. Interestingly, the difference in retention rates between reading a hard copy and perusing online were greatest among the youngest people studied.
Readers, in other words, understand the two-dimensional print environment; gridded streets are easy to navigate. But the internet is of a whole different order. It has not only added a third dimension to the bustling metropolis—skyscrapers of information towering overhead—but it also has obliterated any physical constraints on travel. You can still wander from street to street and absorb each block. But there are far more efficient ways to explore. Links in stories act as wormholes that hurtle you toward any destination. Search engines, meanwhile, are essentially side doors that open to virtually anywhere.
It’s far easier to find specific bits of information. Want to know what’s happening in Syria? Google will take you there in .01 seconds. Need a recipe for homemade cat food? The internet has your answer. We can attain information faster than at any time in history, but for some cognitive scientists, the question is whether our minds can keep up. Can readers adapt to this new environment, and will they lose anything in the process?
A 2007 study of sixth graders learning about tigers, hurricanes, and landfills is one of many aimed at answering questions like these. Authors Julie Coiro and Elizabeth Dobler observed advanced middle school readers as they used search engines and perused relevant websites to answer questions about the three topics. Along with using classic methods to comprehend printed texts—scanning for keywords and drawing on what they already knew about tigers, for example—the sixth graders also bypassed these strategies in favor of more efficient alternatives.
They understood what makes a good search. “If [the top results] don’t work, most of the other ones won’t work and you should try a different search,” a student named Chad said. And they zoomed through websites using links, quickly zeroing in on important information. This fast-paced navigation, the researchers noted, showed the students to be adept at predicting where those links might lead. When one student searched for information about hurricanes, she even described the journey in three-dimensional terms. “I’m going to click [on a link for the National Hurricane Center] because it sounds pretty basic,” she said, “and I’ll see if it has another title underneath it [on the next page].”
Of course, this sort of educated guessing online also requires more complicated navigation than it does in print. The sixth-graders predicted what they would find on any given page, monitored and evaluated the accuracy of those inferences, and then repeated the process in rapid succession. This cognitive process was paired with physical actions such as scrolling, clicking, and typing. The authors of the study concluded that these sixth-graders in particular proved well-suited for this active and complex reading style.
Digital media may provide more advanced readers with the flexibility to pinpoint specific information, but therein lies another potential pitfall. The study of South Korean newspaper readers found that well-educated participants comprehended public affairs news in print and online at similar levels. The less educated, on the other hand, comprehended “significantly more” information when it was presented in print. That result, which the authors termed “knowledge gaps,” could become wider as more media consumption moves online. Similarly, the Dutch survey observed that “very highly educated respondents learn about more public events and issues by using online papers for longer periods of time.” The authors offered two potential explanations: Either this group could better navigate digital media; or they’re more likely to seek out public affairs information in the first place.
The collective results offer both encouraging and cautionary tales of how new media may affect reading comprehension. While the digital era seems to offer advanced readers an unprecedented ability to find information, the environment may be such a complicated labyrinth that their less privileged counterparts fall behind.
CAN THE BRAIN KEEP PACE WITH TECHNOLOGY?
From stories about living conditions in New York’s slum tenements of the 1880s to the plight of children in contemporary homeless shelters, empathy is an integral part of journalism.
Stories have powerful effects on us. We feel empathy for characters just as we do for flesh-and-blood people, and the act of reading about them might even make us more empathetic in real life, change our opinions, and push us to action.
But both Ickes, who tested empathic cognition in human encounters, and Immordino-Yang, who used brain scans and a nonfiction narrative, suggest that time and experience are factors that influence empathy. We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us.
Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative. In magazine journalism, this makes perfect, intuitive sense. We know that longer narratives with complex characters and strong storylines can have a deep impact on readers who take the time to read from start to finish.
That group of readers may be diminishing, according to recent studies that suggest skimming and distraction are part of the digital reading experience. If true, digital reading seems to lend itself poorly to everything we now know about how time, focus, and information support feelings of empathy. As a result, perhaps our empathic responses to narratives have already become shallower, without our even noticing.
The research on digital reading offers a clear hypothesis to our experiment: It seems possible that digital readers would be less transported by a magazine story because of the increased speed and level of distraction that screens encourage. If readers don’t spend the time and acquire enough information about characters in a story, their level of transportation will probably be minimal.
The story may be less likely to have an impact on their beliefs, or to draw them into action. In other words, if screens are decreasing readers’ ability to be transported by stories, journalism will have less impact. Readers may even be more selective about the stories they want to read, and they may deliberately avoid stories about the misunderstood and underrepresented in favor of groups and narratives with which they are already comfortable.
But it’s not that clear-cut and there are, of course, plenty of benefits to our newly wired lives; easy access to information is just one of them.
And there’s reason to be wary of the pessimism. After all, new technologies have almost always given rise to concerns about their damaging effects on humanity. Maryanne Wolf has shown that the human brain was never meant to read, but evolved alongside our growing use of signs and symbols. Maybe our brains will similarly adapt in some surprising way to digital reading, and our capacity for empathy will remain the same.
If our coming experiment shows that screens do, in fact, decrease empathy, it needn’t serve as a warning against digital reading, but rather as the beginning of a conversation about how we can meet those challenges by adjusting reading strategies or even the structures of digital texts. If the study shows no difference between print and digital? Well, maybe things aren’t quite as dire as some scientific studies lead us to believe.
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