In a recent article, “Understanding audience involvement: Conceptualizing and manipulating identification and transportation,” Nurit Tal-Or and Jonathan Cohen (2010) argue and empirically demonstrate that identifying with a character and experiencing transportation when reading fiction or watching films are distinct experiences. As Cohen conceptualizes it in his earlier work (2001), identification involves empathy, an experience in which the reader or viewer imagines herself or himself to be the character through two processes – affective empathy, in which feeling and affinity are involved – and cognitive empathy, in which he or she takes on the character’s goals and viewpoint. Tal-Or and Cohen’s first step in arguing for a distinction between identification and transportation is to note that although both processes may involve reduced self-awareness, identification does not necessarily involve the whole narrative (p. 404), but is limited to a character and his or her concerns and actions. Transportation, on the contrary, encompasses the degree of absorption in the story, but does not locate the source of this absorption in any particular narrative element.
Past attempts to measure each construct are documented, including Cohen’s (2001) identification scale and Green and Brock’s (2000) 15-item transportation scale, with the latter demonstrating more convincing discriminant and convergent validity than the former. However, Tal-Or and Cohen note that, because the original exercises in establishing validity on the transportation scale were done in the context of the construct of cognitive elaboration within the field of persuasion research, it would be theoretically and empirically useful to undertake validity testing in relation to concepts such as involvement, suspense, and especially identification (406). The authors then show that a survey of recent empirical research on the two constructs reveals many points of confounding. When identification has ostensibly been manipulated, it is impossible to demonstrate that transportation was not also manipulated, and vice versa.
The authors conduct an experiment in which 80 participants view differing altered versions of the film The Brothers McMullen. They suggest that identification and transportation are likely not conscious processes; therefore having participants consciously attempt to experience them would not have the desired effect. The authors therefore manipulate the viewer’s knowledge of the character’s past or future deeds in the story in order to increase or decrease intensities of identification and transportation. Knowledge of a character’s past deeds in the context of ignorance of the character’s future should increase identification. Because suspense is highly correlated with transportation, viewer knowledge of future character deeds in the context of the character’s ignorance of them should increase transportation. Further, because identification has been demonstrated to be stronger with more positive characters, the experimental design included two levels of valence of character’s deeds. Four groups of twenty participants with differing sets of “time of deeds” and character valence combinations were thus created: (1) future and positive deeds; (2) future and negative deeds; (3) past and positive deeds; (4) past and negative deeds. The authors also sought to determine whether identification and transportation differentially contributed to enjoyment of the film. After viewing the film, participants completed modified versions of Cohen’s (2001) identification scale and Green and Brock’s (2000) transportation scale, along with correlated measures of realism and relevance of scenes viewed to the viewer’s personal life, and a measure of their enjoyment of the film.
A preliminary factor analysis revealed identification and transportation to be two independent factors, with transportation splitting into two identifiable factors of experience in transportation and attention in transportation. Further, the relevance of a film to one’s personal life and the realism of the film were found to be reliably related to the intensity of transportation. Realism was not related to intensity of identification with a character, and relevance was marginally, but not reliably, related to identification. The experimental intervention revealed that identification was greater with positive character deeds, but no relationship between time of deeds and identification was in evidence. In line with earlier research, transportation was reliably enhanced when participants received information about future character deeds. The authors report “manipulating valence influenced identification without changing the levels of transportation, whereas time of deeds affected transportation without having an impact on identification” (413). Transportation was also found to contribute significantly to enjoyment of the film, but identification did not contribute to enjoyment, once transportation was taken into account. The authors conclude that identification with a character may not rely on the unity of perspective between viewer and character, but that the emotional connection nurtured by the positivity of the character may precede identification, with unity of perspectives following. The authors admit that the results may not be applicable to other forms of media.
These results raise a number of important questions. Much theoretical and empirical work in the psychology of aesthetic reception claims that identifying with characters is crucial to the emotional and cognitive experiencing of fictional worlds. If earlier studies have confounded transportation and identification, do readers and viewers in fact identify with characters as much as we thought they did? Are they transported as much as we thought they were? If their enjoyment of fictional worlds is not enhanced by more intensely identifying with characters, then why do they identify with characters? Do they sympathize more than they empathize? Are these two differentially related to transportation? A more detailed model of the relationships between transportation, identification, and enjoyment of fictional worlds emerges as a priority area of research in light of these results.
Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication and Society, 4, 245-264.
Green, M., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.