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Home / In the Spotlight / Using Fiction to Teach Empathy

 

In 2012, The Hunger Games smashed box office records as crowds gathered to view a powerful story. The violent film offered a strong message of anti-violence. How ironic, and yet it worked. How? Because of empathy.

“The Hunger Games” Promotes Empathy

According to the article “Human Empathy Through the Lens of Social Neuroscience” from The Scientific World JOURNAL[1], empathy is “the ability to experience and understand what others feel without confusion between oneself and others.”

Viewers of “The Hunger Games” connected with characters who had to make tough ethical and moral choices. By the time viewers left the theater, their thought processes changed because the film knew how to teach empathy. Viewers were confronted with the question of what they would do in a similar situation.

How Fiction Teaches Empathy

In her New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” [2] Annie Murphy Paul cites a study by Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada. In this study, he noted that preschool-age children who had stories read to them had a keener theory of mind. This occurred after the children watched movies, as well. However, it did not happen when they watched television.

Dr. Mar conjectured that the parent-children conversations after movies might have an impact on the results. He finds that parents are more likely to watch a film with a child, but children are often left to watch television alone.

In this article, Paul highlights a quote from Dr. Mar:

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Using Film Curriculum to Teach Empathy

Journeys in Film uses its own curriculum and recommends films that teach empathy using fictional stories on film. For example, in Children of Heaven, middle school viewers develop an understanding of what it means to live in such poverty that losing a pair of shoes can break a family.

Although children viewing the title might live without financial worry, watching the film helps them connect to, and understand, others who struggle more. This leaves them with a desire to help others rather than judge or ridicule them.

Film is a useful tool for helping children understand others without living through experiences themselves. Their cognitive structures change, encouraging them to reach out in global understanding.


[1] http://mfs.uchicago.edu/upcoming/sciencemorality/readings/decetylamm.pdf

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

 

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