Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing is about communication, and effective communication depends on understanding your audience. A book written in untranslated Japanese is unlikely to land with a mass Western audience, a book full of high-level terms and complex sentences isn’t going to set the children’s literature market on fire, and even certain ideas and ways of thinking are going to drive away a general readership unless presented in a way that makes them accessible.
Of course, that accessibility depends on understanding how your readers think. If you don’t really understand how they’re processing what you write, you can’t find ways to win them over. Without this kind of insight, you’re releasing your art into the world and just hoping that it finds the people who think like you, or at least the people who are already suited to processing your words in the way you expect.
There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s worked for many authors over the centuries – but in a world of expanding choice and more clearly understood divisions, it’s worth asking what you can do to speak to a wider audience, whether you’re looking to expand your readership or win hearts and minds.
That’s why, in today’s article, we’ll be discussing the theoretical spectrum on which all readers fall and what it means for the genre, writing style, and subject matter of your writing. We’re going to dive relatively deep into the theory, but when we surface, it’ll be to some genuinely practical ways to apply what we’ve discovered.
Ways of thinking
The first thing to acknowledge before wading into deeper waters is that there are drastic differences in how people process the world, and these can be connected both to the individual and to the circumstances of the moment. In Authors Need To Know About Aphantasia: Here’s Why, we talked about the fact that some readers and authors lack any sort of visual imagination, while in Psychology 101: Knowledge That Will Improve Your Writing, we talked about how using slightly different words can warp perception enough that it can change someone’s memory of an event.
Despite this malleability of experience, we tend to assume that everyone thinks and feels more or less as we do – that even the people we disagree with are working with the same basic assumptions and resources. There are many benefits to exploring why that’s not the case, but in artistic terms, embracing this realization allows us to both connect with more people and more effectively communicate our own view on the world.
At the same time, it’s worth appreciating that no single experience defines anyone – indeed, no fifty or a hundred experiences define anyone – and that the observations we’re going to look at now paint a broad picture of ‘types’ rather than being anything close to an accurate account of any individual. The point of a spectrum is that people can mix different qualities, but even then, the spectrum only describes the qualities with which it is concerned, and other factors can be just as, if not more, important to who someone is. In short, when we look at systematic and empathetic reading, we’re discussing one thing that can influence how readers experience your art, not fashioning a label that can be used to fully describe any person in their entirety.
What are systematic and empathetic reading?
In short, (some) research has identified that two thinking styles – the tendency to ‘systemize’ and the tendency to ‘empathize’ – can be described as existing on a spectrum.
Empathetic thinking is a loose description of a grouping of social instincts, including the ability to identify the emotions present in others and the tendency to prioritize that awareness in decision-making. Systematic thinking, on the other hand, is a similarly loose grouping of practical instincts, including the ability to discern and conceptualize the parts of complex systems (e.g. machinery, chemistry, politics) and the tendency to focus on their consistency and application in decision-making.
[The Empathizing -Systemizing theory suggests that] individuals can be classified on the basis of two dimensions: empathy, defined as the ability to recognize another person’s mental state (“cognitive empathy”) and the drive to respond to it with an appropriate emotion (“affective empathy”), and systemizing, defined as the drive to analyze or build a rule-based system. Both of these dimensions are normally distributed in the general population, with well-established biological factors (e.g., prenatal testosterone and common genetic variants) contributing to a proportion of the variance.– David M. Greenberg et al., ‘Testing the Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people’
As you’ve probably already identified, the idea of placing these two qualities on a spectrum suggests that they’re at least partly in opposition – that being particularly empathetic might preclude a person from being particularly systematic, and vice versa.
In this light, it’s worth noting that the topic under discussion is trends in how information is processed and prioritized, not individual ability. In short, a person who is largely systematic in their thinking is not necessarily unable to empathize with others, they’re just more likely to prioritize systematic thinking in their decision-making. Similarly, neither side is ‘bad,’ they just tend to approach things in different ways.
So, what does this mean for your writing? Well, broadly it means that some readers are more interested in an empathetic experience and some are more interested in a systematic experience. Consider, for instance, a story about a wrongfully accused prisoner attempting to clear their name through the courts. An empathetic approach might focus on their emotional experience of surviving within the system, of the effects on their family and the nuances of how different people understand or refute their innocence. A systematic approach, on the other hand, might focus on the actual appeals process – the drama of which evidence is thrown out, the procedure of the trial, and the myriad complexities of how the machinery of justice operates.
Neither is a bad approach, both could be thrilling, and they’re not even mutually exclusive. A lot of true crime writing deals with both empathetic and systematic storytelling, with the human interest of emotion acting as a simple, desperate counterpoint to the fascinating complexity of the systems that govern the lives within them.
This is the value of understanding systematic and empathetic reading on a spectrum – most people aren’t totally one or the other, and most art isn’t either, but nor are we all right in the middle, appreciating both equally. If you’re aiming your art at a particularly systematic audience, then the latter version of our trial story is going to go over better. But even if your writing style naturally focuses on one end of the spectrum, it may still be worth your time understanding what readers on the other end connect with, since there might be other ways to more effectively engage with them.
Applying systematic and empathetic thinking to your art
Some readers naturally prioritize systems, and some naturally prioritize emotions, and most of us fall on a spectrum somewhere between the two. This makes an understanding of the spectrum feel pointless – we’re all different, so what? – but since the way we process information tends to inform our artistic tastes, writing is one area where this idea can have practical applications.
For example, if there are particular types of reader who tend toward one side of the spectrum, then shifting the focus of our storytelling, or even the way in which we write, can better appeal to those readers. The difficulty, then, is identifying which groups ‘clump’ to one side.
The first way we might try to identify majority empathetic or systematic thinkers is by gender. Indeed, this has been the focus of most of the research into empathizing-systemizing theory, fleshing out the theory that women have a tendency towards empathetic thinking, while men tend towards a systematic approach. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the leading voices in this area of research, has defined five categories of empathizing-systemizing thinking:
- Extreme Type S – Above average systemizing, below average empathizing,
- Type S – Systemizing at higher levels than empathizing,
- Type B – Balanced empathizing and systemizing,
- Type E – Empathizing at higher levels than systemizing,
- Extreme Type E – Above average empathizing, below average systemizing.
Studies carried out by Baron-Cohen have also found that, of those tested, twice as many men than women are Type S, while twice as many women than men are Type E. In short, Baron-Cohen found that men are more likely to be systematic thinkers, while women are more likely to be empathetic thinkers. Accordingly, Baron-Cohen refers to these types of thinking as ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain.’
The theory is based on the idea that men and women differ in fundamental ways, and that the differences lie along a continuum. Subscribers to the theory assign the term ‘empathy’ to the female end of the continuum, referring to a constellation of social skills, such as the ability to intuit others’ emotional states.
At the male end is the tendency to ‘systemize,’ or to recognize patterns and understand natural and technical systems, such as the weather or a computer.– Hannah Furfaro, ‘The extreme male brain, explained’
Unfortunately, this terminology does more harm than good. As stated, even if Baron-Cohen’s research is perfect, there are still plenty of female Type S thinkers and male Type E thinkers. Similarly, by choosing gendered terminology, the implication is made that these types of thinking describe how people ‘should’ be, rather than just recording existing trends.
Baron-Cohen has gone further, even describing an ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, in which autistic people are considered to exhibit extreme systematic thinking. The faults in this system of terminology should be apparent from this – describing an autistic woman as exhibiting ‘extreme male brain’ suggests that, at the very least, there are flaws in describing this spectrum as a matter of gender.
Finally, Baron-Cohen’s research isn’t particularly concerned with genetic difference versus social difference. In a society where systematic thinking is still often discouraged in women and empathetic thinking discouraged in men – and where society is grappling with that fact in ways both positive and negative – using gender as a touchstone for describing types of thinking is building on shifting ground.
If you’re publishing for a male readership today, Baron-Cohen’s research suggests that a systematic approach will be more palatable to your audience, but for an author’s purposes, the spread is still too broad. Few things are written on a gendered basis, and so the most useful conclusion we can draw is that if a genre is already seen as the province of one gender, it may be because that genre tends towards Type S or Type E writing. Not exactly groundbreaking, and – because of the scale of gender – frequently unhelpful. As previously mentioned, true crime involves a lot of systemized writing, and it tends to be a lot more popular with women than with men.
So, for writing at least, gender is something of a bust. What about political outlook? Here, we’re onto a more promising lead. After all, your political outlook is shaped by how you think society should be run, which we can expect to be shaped by systematic or empathetic tendencies, creating a more meaningful link between art and politics than between art and gender.
Let’s return to the courtroom – imagine a situation in which a character has been given a sentence for a crime we do not know whether they committed. Reader A is of the opinion that the sentence is wrong even if the character committed the crime, because it will cause the character an amount of suffering that can’t be justified. Reader B is of the opinion that since the character knew this sentence could be given for the crime in question, and because the system has acted consistently in applying it, the sentence is justified and should only be nullified if the character is innocent.
Here, we’re seeing empathetic reading (reading which prioritizes emotional wellbeing) versus systematic reading (reading which prioritizes the validity and composition of systems). At the same time, we’re (arguably) seeing the thinking behind some real-life political divisions.
If empathizing-systemizing theory isn’t accepted science, then its role in political outlook certainly isn’t. That said… it’s worth considering whether you can predict a bias towards a type of thinking in your readership, and whether you can utilize that tendency to make your writing more impactful or convincing. If you bring an empathetic argument to a systematic audience, you may not be presenting your ideas in the most persuasive or engaging way, and vice versa.
So, gender not so much, political outlook a little better, how about genre? Here, we’re onto something a lot more concrete. Now, as with any application of a general theory, not every book in a given genre will tend towards a given way of thinking, but since genre tends to describe both aesthetic (how a story ‘looks’) and approach (what it prioritizes in its telling), we’re again in the realm of things that are more than casually linked with how you process information. In that case, what genres cater to systematic readers, and which favor empathetic readers?
Our first (and most obvious) answer is romance. Romance stories tend to be all about emotion, and so you’d expect to find that as a group, a romance readership would contain more empathetic readers than systematic readers. In contrast, political fiction could be expected to reveal the opposite results, since the focus is a deeply complex system. (Though, as we’re dealing with large groups and general trends, there are of course outlier books and many, many outlier readers.)
Genre fiction is harder to call. Traditionally, genre writing has been systematic in its approach – concepts over feelings – but there’s also a long history of genre fiction being marketed to and written for a male audience. As we’ve already covered, men are stereotypically expected to exhibit systematic thinking, so it’s unclear how much of this pattern is due to genre fiction inviting systematic thinking (new worlds filled with complex machines, systems and cultures) and how much is due to the traditional exclusion of the stereotypically feminine from these spaces. Is genre writing inherently systematic, has it mostly been written for inherently systematic men, or has it been traditionally systematic because we assumed that’s what men wanted, and there were enough Type S men to reward that assumption?
Whatever the answer, genre fiction has tended to reward systematic writing (though, again, with frequent and successful exceptions). If you’re a systematic writer, that’s good news, but if you’re an empathetic writer, forewarned is at least forearmed – you can start considering how to include systematic readers in your writing, or just make sure to find and target empathetic genre readers in your marketing. None of these trends are so absolute that there isn’t a market for your type of writing, it just might take more work to carve out a place on the scene.
What systemizing-empathizing theory means for writers
This is really the take-away of considering systematic and empathetic thinking in your art – trends don’t accurately describe individuals, so you don’t need to worry about having no audience at all, but they do describe patterns. An empathetic thriller writer, for example, is going against the broadly systematic expectations of their genre. That doesn’t mean they can’t succeed, or even that they’re doing anything wrong, but it does mean that they may need to prepare readers for a slightly different experience than the norm.
If the market assumes that a majority of thriller readers like a certain thing, then various systems will be built to cater to them. If you’re going against the grain and seeking out the empathetic thriller audience, it may be that the accepted norms of how book blurbs are written or how covers are designed work against your efforts, and knowing this is the first step to turning it to your advantage.
Another practical consideration is working with an editor. Editors vary in approach and quality, and while they are hopefully educated and experienced, they’re still only human. If an editor is, for instance, a particularly systematic reader, they may be prone to undervaluing your empathetic style.
This is something that stuck out to me in the Masterclass lectures of both James Patterson and Dan Brown. Both writers employ techniques that many editors would warn against. Brown, for example, describes beginning with a set of interesting settings and then creating a story to link them, as well as connecting characters through vague backstories that never pay off. Indeed, both writers show little interest in developing the internal lives of their characters.
Many editors would tell them that they desperately need to flesh out their characters – reviewers have delighted in critiquing Brown’s simplistic style – but both writers are bestsellers, beloved by hundreds of thousands of readers. While any piece of art can be criticized, it’s clear that they’re doing something right, because they’re connecting with a lot of readers. They are communicating successfully.
Part of the explanation for this seeming contradiction is that both Brown and Patterson are extremely systematic authors writing in a genre that serves a broadly systematic readership. Empathetic writing isn’t missing, it’s just not their natural style, which works perfectly for readers who (again, broadly) aren’t looking for that kind of story.
This is something to keep in mind as you write, edit and market your book. While it doesn’t pay to insist that your editor simply doesn’t ‘get’ your writing, it’s worth considering the outlook you’re writing for and whether the advice you’re getting is about what will work for your audience or what makes sense to the person trying to help.
As I mentioned earlier, we tend not to truly grasp that other people process the world differently, so if you’re the kind of person who needs to really understand what a protagonist is going through, a story that assumes their grim stoicism before unraveling a complex web of intrigue and double-crosses can seem flawed when, actually, it’s the perfect story for the intended audience.
Types and individuals
I’ll say it a final time; none of us are simple, and while there are extreme systematic and empathetic thinkers, most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum, and we might even move around depending on what day it is.
Appreciating systemizing-empathizing theory isn’t about fitting everyone into one of two boxes, but rather about appreciating unfamiliar ways in which people process information and using that insight to better communicate with a wider audience.
If you’re a systematic thinker writing that courtroom drama, it might be worth spending just a little more time digging into the emotional experience of the protagonist, to keep empathetic readers engaged. Likewise, if you’re an empathetic writer, re-examine your instinct to skip the exact details of the day in court; there are readers out there who want to read that stuff.
Not to open a can of worms when we’re so near the end, but in structural terms, the original Star Wars movies focus on the emotional experiences of the characters, rather than the societal and technological systems that are more commonly the focus in sci-fi storytelling.
Despite this, these complex systems aren’t ignored – planets, systems of belief, and alien races all exist on the thematic sidelines – and much of the extended fiction that grew out of those movies fleshed out the systematic details. In this way, Star Wars had its cake and ate it too; an emotional focus to grab more empathetic fans and enough hints at vast civilizations to fascinate more systematic thinkers. Whether it was purposeful or not, part of Star Wars’ massive cultural appeal was its ability to welcome in such a broad church of potential fans. Food for thought as you consider your next project.
Do you skew more towards systemizing or empathizing in your writing, and how is this represented in your style and subject matter? Let me know in the comments, and check out Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller for another big swing at understanding the human condition in a way that could make you a better writer.