ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (11): 2025-2039.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.02025

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Warm reading: Clarifying the mechanisms of empathy in text reading

TONG Yuguang, LI Ying, CHEN Jie   

  1. College of Education, Hebei University, Baoding 071002, China
  • Received:2022-09-30 Online:2023-11-15 Published:2023-08-28

Abstract: The Social Processes and Content Entrained by Narrative (SPaCEN) model was proposed in recent years. This model marked a significant shift in the focus of text reading research away from coherent representations and toward the principles and goals of social functions. One of the key social cognitive skills is empathy, which can provide a valuable lens through which to examine how text reading serves a social purpose. Understanding the social role of empathy in text reading necessitates having a thorough understanding of the whole life cycle of empathy in text, including the process of its initiation, its action and the operation of its subsequent influence.
Empathy during reading can be induced through the linguistic features of the text, textual elements, and self-simulation processes. Specifically, the linguistic features of the text coordinate attentional resources and balance aesthetic experiences by manipulating vocabulary, phonetics and rhetorical techniques to obtain an enhanced empathic experience; the textual elements induce empathic experiences by constructing scenes with different content features; and the self-simulation process emphasizes the reader's awareness and evaluation process of the textual information. The empathy induced by different pathways all include three components of empathy, narrative involvement, emotion and evaluation in different degrees.
Various writing styles, reader attributes, and text qualities all influence how readers act on their empathic experiences. Specifically, authors may choose writing strategies that aim to evoke empathic experiences of certain readers for specific groups, depending on the intended audience group, including bounded narrative empathy acting on in-groups, ambassadorial narrative empathy acting on out-groups, and broadcast narrative empathy acting on objects of general interest. Readers' internal (e.g., experiences, personality traits) and external characteristics (e.g., reading style, reading medium, reading environment) can also contribute to differences in empathic experiences. Different genre types and text features may induce or enhance readers' empathic experiences through different paths such as arousing attention, activating familiar features, and reducing defensiveness. The arrangement of textual content can also facilitate readers' integration into the storyline from a character's perspective by easing readers' inferences about the psychological theory of textual roles through emotional valence, perspective markers, and protagonist characteristics.
The distributed elementary processing model of text reading and empathy offers a new view on how empathy in text reading processes from a multidimensional perspective. According to this model, the author, the reader and the text work together to produce empathy. The author's writing strategy, the type and content of the text, and the characteristics of the reader all influence the empathic experience of the reader. With the superposition of the elements in each component, a slow activation of empathy from scratch is gradually achieved. The model further assumes that the empathic experience activated by text reading is reflected at the neural level, the cognitive-emotional level, and the behavioral level. Along with memory, encoding, and retrieval-related brain regions (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex associated with intertemporal and cross-modal processing), as well as motivational and reasoning-related brain regions (e.g., ventral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, temporoparietal junction) being active during reading, explicitly empathy-related brain regions such as the inferior frontal gyrus also exhibit sustained or fluctuating activation.
In conclusion, reading with empathy not only improves readers' comprehension of others' thoughts and feelings and their ability to draw inferences about the theory of mind underlying texts, but it also serves to dispel prejudices and encourage actions that assist animals and the environment. Future research should concentrate on how to maximize the effectiveness of text reading in triggering empathy, creating a strong spiritual motivation for readers, and promoting the development and improvement of their healthy personalities at the application level, in addition to identifying which idiosyncratic text elements can effectively trigger empathy at the basic processing level.

Key words: text reading, empathy, theory of strategic narrative empathy, neurocognitive poetics model

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