Monday, August 24, 2015

Research Bulletin: Do spoilers spoil stories for everyone?

Many of us go out of our way to avoid information about a new movie or book because we believe that it will spoil our enjoyment of the story. But does knowing plot events and outcomes actually make a narrative less enjoyable? Evidence from research is mixed, with some studies showing that people enjoy stories more when the outcome is known and other research suggesting that the opposite is true.

One possible reason for these contradictory findings is that knowing the outcome of a story may only spoil it for certain people but not others. A recent study by Judith Rosenbaum (Albany State University) and Benjamin Johnson (VU University Amsterdam) tested this possibility by looking at two personality traits: (1) Need for Affect (the tendency to seek out and enjoy emotional situations) and (2) Need for Cognition (the tendency to engage in and enjoy thinking).

The researchers first asked undergraduate students to read a story preview for one of three different short stories. For half of the participants, the preview contained spoilers and for the rest it did not. The participants then read the full story and answered questionnaires measuring how much they enjoyed the story, as well as personality traits including Need for Cognition and Need for Affect. Interestingly, participants who had a high Need for Affect enjoyed unspoiled stories more than spoiled stories. On the other hand, participants who had a high Need for Cognition were no more or less likely to enjoy a spoiled story over an unspoiled story. 
The researchers hypothesize that not knowing how a story turns out can increase suspense and arousal, leading to greater enjoyment. Unspoiled stories may therefore be especially enjoyable for people with a high Need for Affect, who have a greater desire for emotional stimulation. This emotional suspense and arousal, however, is unrelated to one’s tendency to seek out and enjoy complex thought, which may explain why story enjoyment among those high in Need for Cognition was not affected by spoilers.

This study offers an interesting insight into how personality traits play a role in the relationship between spoilers and enjoyment. It also highlights the importance of measuring personality traits in psychological research. It appears that whether or not spoilers spoil a story depends on who you are!

Rosenbaum, J. E., & Johnson, B. K. (2015, March 9). Who’s Afraid of Spoilers? Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Post by Marina Rain.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Research Bulletin: How Music Affects Film Appreciation

Music has always accompanied films in one form or another. Today, entire soundtracks are produced solely for movies. Moreover, many of these musical themes have become a part of popular culture, instantly recognizable and synonymous with certain movies. But music doesn’t just add to the aesthetics of the film and fill in the silent segments; it can also help to engage viewers. Drs. Kristi Costabile (Iowa State University) and Amanda Terman (University of California) conducted 2 experiments to help shed light on how music accompanying a film helps draw the viewer into the story. Specifically, they looked at the effect of music on whether a movie can shape our beliefs, and how strongly viewers identify with the main character.

Both studies found similar effects, but were slightly different in their structure. In the first experiment, 57 participants were randomly assigned to watch a film either with its original soundtrack or with this soundtrack taken out. There was no dialogue in the film. In the second experiment, the film originally had no soundtrack but there was dialogue. 110 participants were randomly assigned to watch this film in its original version, or with classical music looped in the background. This music was either emotionally consistent with the story, or opposite in tone.

The researcher found that when a soundtrack accompanies the film, viewers become more immersed in the story presented, both emotionally and cognitively. As a result, viewers were also more likely to agree with the beliefs expressed in the film. The main character in the story was also seen as more identifiable. However, these effects only appeared when the music was emotionally consistent with the story (e.g., sad music playing for a sad story). When the music was emotionally inconsistent with the film, these results disappeared or even moved in the opposite direction.

Music and narrative have a complex relationship, but these studies have helped to uncover some of its intricacies. Hearing a musical theme often conjures up memories of watching the movie it came from and the memorable scenes and emotional reactions to that movie. Music is more than just an accompaniment. In a film, the music becomes inseparable from the story. 

Costabile, K. A. & Terman, A. W. (2013). Effects of Film Music on Psychological Transportation and Narrative Persuasion. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35, 316-324.

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Post by Helen (Hongjin) Zhu

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Monday, August 10, 2015

Research Bulletin: Comparing eReaders and Actual Books

The accessibility of tablets, e-readers and smartphones has made it so that it is no longer necessary to lug around a heavy 600 page physical book.  Although these devices might make reading more convenient, the question remains whether individuals prefer reading on these devices or in print. Åse Tveit (Oslo and Akershu University College of Applied Sciences) and Anne Mangen (University of Stavanger) conducted a study to investigate how teenagers experience reading on digital devices versus with a physical book. 

A total of 143 students were recruited from various schools in Oslo, Norway to participate in the study. Participants were asked to read the novel Jokeren by Lars Saabye Christensen either as a printed book or on an e-reader (Sony Reader PRS T2). The experimenters administered two questionnaires, one before the reading session and one after the reading session. These questionnaires measured self-reported experiences regarding e-readers and print books. 

Although e-readers and tablets were not used for reading by most students, they agreed that in the future, reading on devices will become more common. The majority of avid readers preferred physical copies of the book whereas those who read infrequently preferred the use of digital devices to read. Other studies have reported a loss of concentration or decreased immersion in a story while reading on a digital device but in this study, reading a printed book or on a device did not make a difference with respect to the student’s experience. 

Even though almost everyone owns a smartphone, digital devices have not supplanted physical books for the purpose of reading. For some, digital devices cannot replicate the feeling associated with reading an actual book. For others, however,  they present an exciting alternative that provides additional interest when reading. 

Tveit, Å. K., & Mangen, A. (2014). A joker in the class: Teenage readers' attitudes and preferences to reading on different devices. Library and Information Science Research, 36(3-4), 179-184. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2014.08.001

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Post by Guneet Daid.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Research Bulletin: Some relation to her

One of Anton Chekhov's favourite stories was the very short piece he called “The student.” The story is simple. It’s about how, on a cold night, round a fire, a theological student tells a story to an old woman, Vasilisa, and her daughter, who are both widows. He then notices that Vasilisa is in tears. The student thinks that there was something in the story which “had some relation to her.” 

Was Chekhov personally fond of his short story, “The student,” because he thought the experience of Vasilisa is central to literature?

Ed Vessel, Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin (2013) had people in an fMRI scanner look at images of art works that were unfamiliar to them. The researchers monitored activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is part of the default mode network, a system in the brain that is active when a person is at rest, rather than attending to events in the outside world. Activation of this network is associated, too, with inwardness, and also when a person does something, or thinks about something, that involves the self.  

The people in the fMRI machine were given the task of rating how they themselves were moved by each artwork they saw. Activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, in the default mode network, suggested that occasionally an artwork was so well-matched to the unique makeup of an individual that it obtained access to the neural processes of the default mode network: processes that are concerned with the self. Ordinarily, external objects do not gain access to this network. 

The researchers conclude that they were picking up signs of certain kind of experience that produced a sense of being “moved,” or being “touched from within.” 

There seems here a close parallel to what happened to Vasilisa in Chekhov’s story.

Chekhov, A. (1894). “The student” in Stories by Anton Chekhov (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.) pp. 263-266.  New York: Bantam (2000)).

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2013). Art reaches within: Aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7, 258. doi: org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00258

Image: Anton Chekhov

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Monday, July 20, 2015

IGEL Conference on Literature and Empathy

I recently participated in a fantastic workshop sponsored by the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (its acronym comes from its original German name, which also means "hedgehog," hence the logo). Organized by Drs. Berenike Hermann and Gerhard Lauer (University of Göttingen), it featured an impressive line-up of researchers all doing excellent empirical work on this topic. Although a great deal of fascinating findings were presented, the general consensus was that there is much work left to do. Thankfully, there are a great many researchers up to this challenge including an exciting cohort of young scientist! The organizers of this conference have been generous enough to post all of the abstracts from the speakers and I would greatly encourage readers of this site to take a look. All talks were also recorded and hopefully these will also be available over the next couple of weeks. A full list of speakers appears below. Right now you can also see some photos and comments from participants on Twitter (#IGEL2015). It is exciting indeed to see so much work being done on this topic! 
Also, if you are a researcher, please consider becoming a member of IGEL. They are a lovely group of people.  

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Research Bulletin: Imagining versus actually meeting a person with schizophrenia

Reading is a way for us to imagine experiences we might never have, but do these imagined experiences affect us in a similar way to real experiences? One way to reduce prejudice is to meet people from other social groups. But what about imagining similar interactions? Is this as effective as actually meeting someone?

Researchers at La Trobe University in Australia (Michael Giacobbe, Arthur Stukas, and John Farhall) decided to ask this question with respect to individuals with schizophrenia. Participants were randomly assigned to have either a real or imagined interaction with an individual diagnosed with schizophrenia, or a well-matched control person without schizophrenia. For the imagined conditions, participants listened to scripts based on actual interactions from the in-person conditions and then imagined as best they could the rest of the experience. Interactions in each condition lasted approximately 15 minutes.

After the imagined or actual experiences, researchers measured whether participant attitudes toward individuals with schizophrenia changed. Those who interacted with the schizophrenic individual exhibited more positive attitudes towards people with schizophrenia compared to those who interacted with the control confederate. Most importantly, the imagined and in-person interactions appeared to be equally effective in improving attitudes.

This study offers preliminary evidence that imagining an interaction can reduce prejudice toward stigmatized groups just as effectively as actual in-person interactions. In light of this, narrative fiction and the structured imagination it provides might be a helpful tool for combatting prejudice. Finally, this study raises additional questions regarding the effect of imagined interactions on reducing prejudice. How long do the effects last? Can these effects be strengthened through repeated imagined contact? What kinds of people might benefit the most from imagined contact? The fascinating results of this study will hopefully inspire further work along these lines.

Giacobbe, M. R., Stukas, A. A., & Farhall, J. (2013). The effects of imagined versus actual contact with a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Basic and Applied Social Psychology,
35(3), 265-271. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2013.785403

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Post by Graham McCreath

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