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Does literature enhance prosocial behavior? Empathy and sympathy from the perspective of Empirical Aesthetics

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share another’s emotional state or context” (Cohen & Strayer 1996). While the affective component of empathy (affective empathy) involves an appropriate emotional response to another’s affective state, the cognitive component (cognitive empathy) involves the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. In the current psychological discussion on empathy, the link between empathy, ethics and morals represents surely one of the most important and hottest topics. In literary theory, there is a bias towards understanding empathy in only prosocial terms. Consequently, all the research in this area is geared towards this positive notion of empathy. Most research has focused on reactions to morally good stories (Johnson 2012; Bal & Veltkamp 2013; Stansfield & Bunce 2014) because for these authors empathy is narrowly defined as “sympathy and concern for unfortunate others” (Bal & Veltkamp 2013). One obstacle to the study of empathy in literary reading is the lack of a general consensus on the definition of literary empathy and therefore a lot of different phenomena such as sympathy, imitation or Theory of Mind, are mistaken with empathy. Thus, the project aims to cast doubt on the very ideological view on literature, which links literary reading, empathy and prosocial behavior. Pubblications; 2017 Rebekka Kricheldorf, Homo Empathicus, (trad., intr by M. Salgaro), CuePress, Bologna. 2016 Sopcak, P., Salgaro, M. & J.B. Herrmann (eds.). Transdisciplinary Approaches to Literature and Empathy, special «Issue of Scientific Study of Literature» (SSOL) 6/1. 2018 Natural Selection in a Worldwide Economic Crisis: The Extinction of Homo oeconomicus in Rebekka Kricheldorf’s Homo Empathicus, accepted for publication in «Oxford German Studies». 2018 (with Benjamin VanTourhout) Why does Frank Underwood look at us? Contemporary heroes suggest the need of a turn in the conceptualization of fictional empathy, accepted for publication in «Journal of literary theory», JLT, 12:2,
Contact people
Massimo Salgaro


Massimo Salgaro
Associate Professor
Simone Rebora
Associate Professor
External components
Andrea Pinotti
Università degli Studi di Milano
Topic Research area
The scientific experiment Letterature tedesca e austriaca
Germanic Science Fiction, Literature and Science
Neuroaesthetics Letterature tedesca e austriaca
Germanic Critical Theory & Poetics
Stilometry Letterature tedesca e austriaca
Germanic Critical Theory & Poetics


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