Going to the theatre increases empathy, apparently

Whether we’re watching a Shakespearean tragedy or a seasonal morality tale, going to the theatre makes us more empathetic. At least, that’s according to a new study from the University of Arkansas.

As Psych Central reports, researchers studied the impact on school students of going to see live productions of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol. They recruited 670 students aged 12-17 and sent some to see the plays while others just read them or watched a film adaptation.

Six weeks after the performances, the students were asked to fill in a survey about the plays’ content. Those who had watched them live had retained much more information about the storyline and characters than those who watched movies or read the plays. As an example, while only 45% who didn’t watch live remembered Hamlet’s friends were called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 83% of the people who saw the play did.

The researchers also used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which was initially developed to assess autism and is used to measure people’s ability to empathise. It involves trying to gauge someone’s mood from just a photo of their eyes. Although of course there could be other variables involved, students who saw the live performances scored far higher on the study’s tolerance measure, suggesting greater empathy.

The researchers haven’t looked at whether adults are affected in the same way, but believe that exposing children to live events, from plays to art shows, can help their development. Says Jay Greene, PhD, who led the study, ‘You can’t always take your kids to a play but if you can, you should.’

Image credit: Phil Kalina for Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens.

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Diane Shipley

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