Massimo Salgaro works as Assistant professor of German Studies at the University of Verona. Among others, he has held research fellowships at the Tongij University of Shanghai (China) and at the University of Göttingen (Germany, Alexander von Humboldt-fellow) in 2015, at the University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada) in 2011, at the Peter-Szondi-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin (DAAD fellow) in 2010 and at Columbia University, New York (USA) in 2008. He is Vice-President of the Internationale-Robert-Musil Gesellschaft, Treasurer of IGEL (International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature) and in the board of the COST-network E-READ.
Although his background is in German Studies, during the past years M. Salgaro has been working empirically with psycholinguists to assess the cognitive and emotional effects of literary reading. His current research project is “Sympathy for the devil” (at Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics) on the moral value of literary empathy.
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, my project aims to cast doubt on the very ideological view on literature, which links literary reading, empathy and prosocial behavior.