The cultivation of empathy: Why we need fiction



“With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching corners of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader, with this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you...”

George Eliot, Adam Bede

I know what it’s like to be beaten down by forty-plus degrees of relentless heat.

I know what it’s like to be shot at.

I know what it’s like to kill somebody.

I know what it’s like to see a comrade die.

I know what it’s like to be scared out of my mind.

I know what it’s like to feel responsible for a friend’s death.

I know what it’s like to be wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder.

I know the struggle of trying to adjust to civilian life.

I have experienced none of these things.

Yet I ‘know’ all these things because I have read Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.

Tracing the experience of a US soldier in Iraq, it is an extraordinary piece of writing, a remarkable testimony, and a heart-breaking monument to what war does to young men. And for that alone it is essential reading.

Yet in the aftermath of finishing it (for it did indeed feel like an aftermath) I revisited a more parochial concern.

The necessity that we who work in marketing- and adland read fiction.

Decades ago Bernbach famously declared that “Nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature... what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action... if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being.”

And so in the pursuit of that insight, we commission research in the hope or expectation that it will allow us to peer into the minds of those we wish to appeal to. That it will unveil their secrets. That it will bring to the surface their emotions. That it will shine a light on their motives.

But no matter what degree of success we meet in this endeavour, and whatever methodology we employ, it is always a case of Us and Them.  We observe, we watch, we listen. Always there is a degree of distance.

For what research cannot engender is empathy - the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions and direct experience of others.

And it is this inability to properly put ourselves in the shoes and lives of others that is arguably the root cause of so much of the garbage that fills out screens, streets, and environments.

So if we want to know about people - if want to truly know about people - if we want to explore and properly understand any aspect of the human condition, if we want to feel what they feel, then we cannot be reliant on research alone.

And while bringing it to bear is a vital part of the creative process, we cannot be reliant on our own personal experience. For as the sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook wrote in their classic 2001 paper ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,’  “Similarity breeds connection... the result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous.”

Much of the time, the people we seek to appeal to are not like us. And personal experience is an unreliable witness.

Fortunately we have to hand the ultimate simulation machine.

The novel.

Here for example, within the space of his opening 246 words, Kevin Powers transports us to 2004, to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq, and into the dusty shoes of a 21 year-old Private:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”

Call it entertainment, call it diversion, call it escapism, but what fiction does is give us a simulation to step into.

It lets us inhabit worlds, situations, cultures, eras, predicaments, conflicts and characters which can be quite different from our own.

So choose your gender. Choose your culture. Choose your religion. Choose your socio-economic background. Choose your occupation. Choose your obsession. Choose your quest. Choose your secret. Choose your love. Choose your weakness. Choose your dream.

Fiction lets us inhabit other lives, not merely observe them.

And it lets us experience the emotions that come with those lives. That after all, as Tolstoy argued, is surely the point - “To invoke in oneself a feeling which one has experienced and, having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.”

So in letting us inhabit these other lives, these other feelings, fiction allows to do what research, despite its best efforts, cannot.

It allows us to read minds.

It allows us to explore - to borrow from Kevin Powers’ words - the cartography of human consciousness.

And in doing so, it fuels our ability to empathize. As the journalist Graeme Archer has written “… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.”

Not only are we not properly human without the ability to see others properly, as marketers we’re highly unlikely to make anything that is useful, desirable, relevant, entertaining or compelling for people.

Furthermore, seeing people properly means acknowledging  the untidiness of life and living. In contrast to the order of brand onions and pyramids, the neatness of consumer segmentations, the precision of copy-testing metrics, the logic and control of powerpoint flow charts and builds, and the anaemic nature of so much of what passes for 'insight', fiction reminds us that life is complex.

Certainly the truth that life is riddled with paradox, contingency, and ambiguity is not a worldview that we readily find in the business, marketing, and consumer psychology sections of any bookstore. They're in the business after all, of selling us handy tips, easy shortcuts, and above all certainty.

So the next time we are say, challenged to acquire an understanding of young boys, we could do worse than reach for Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13⅓, or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, or Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean The End Of The Lane before we reach for the research debrief, the segmentation study, or (heaven forbid) the latest teen trends report.

They will contain more undiluted honesty, more candid truth, more grit and emotion, and more genuine, penetrating revelation and insight than all of them put together.

At a fraction of the price.



Graeme Archer, ‘Good novels teach us how to be human beings’ , The Telegraph

Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook, ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27 (2001)

Leo Tolstoy, 'What Is Art?'