Monday, 29 November 2010

Research Bulletin: Empirically Distinguishing Identification and Transportation

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.

Tal-Or, N., & Cohen, J. (2010). Understanding audience involvement: Conceptualizing and manipulating identification and transportation. Poetics, 38, 402-418.

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Monday, 22 November 2010

Research Bulletin: Victorian Authors as Intuitive Psychologists

Our view here at OnFiction has always been that psychologists and authors share a great deal in common. Both are concerned with elucidating human psychology, psychologists through systematic observation and experimentation, and authors through imagination and mental simulation of complex social situations. A recent study soon to be published in the Journal of Research in Personality may just be the first bit of quantitative evidence to support this assertion. John Johnson (Penn State), Joseph Carroll (Missouri—St. Louis), Jonathan Gottschall (Washington & Jefferson), and Daniel Kruger (Michigan) collaborated to examine the personality of characters in Victorian novels. A total of 519 scholars and students of Victorian literature were recruited to given their impressions of a character from a novel of that era, through an online survey. Characters were chosen from a list of around 2,000 characters from 200 canonical 19th century British novels. These characters were then rated on a number of characteristics, including trait personality, motivations, success in achieving goals, and mate preferences and strategies. What they found was that there was remarkably good agreement between raters on what these characters were like. To give you a taste of these ratings, Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch was rated as low in dominance, very high in constructive effort, about average in romance, and moderately high in nurturing tendencies. (The article describes many more of these fascinating examples.) In general, the associations between each of the traits measured seemed to concord well with modern psychological research. This implies that Victorian authors were not just intuitive psychologists, but relatively accurate ones. An interesting difference did emerge, however. Victorian writers appeared to emphasize the importance of agreeableness, a tendency to value social harmony amongst one’s peers. In doing so, these writers may have encouraged their readers (knowingly or not) to value cooperation and empathy. This study demonstrates an admirable blend of methodologies, taking an archival approach in selecting historical texts and marrying it with ratings by “peers” using an Internet survey. It also provides an encouraging example of how even the most difficult questions may be subject to an empirical test. As always, readers interested in reading a copy of the original article may contact me to receive a copy (e-mail in profile).

Johnson, J.A., Carroll, J., Gottschall, J., Kruger, D., Portrayal of Personality in Victorian Novels Reflects Modern Research Findings but Amplifies the Significance of Agreeableness, Journal of Research in Personality (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.11.011

(Photo Credit)

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Monday, 15 November 2010

Sapolksy's 'Brain on Metaphors'

And what is the frontal cortex good for? Emotional regulation, gratification postponement, executive decision-making, long-term planning. We study hard in high school to get admitted to a top college to get into grad school to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice. Gophers don’t do that.
An essay by Robert Sapolsky has been published this week in the New York Times' blog column, The Stone on the brain and metaphor (the essay is also is the subject of this week’s forum discussion among the humanists and scientists at On the Human). I am finding this piece (from which I have taken these excerpts) fascinating, along lines often discussed in these pages:
What are we to make of the brain processing literal and metaphorical versions of a concept in the same brain region? Or that our neural circuitry doesn’t cleanly differentiate between the real and the symbolic? What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?
Sapolsky cites a number of brilliant natural and lab experiments that show the myriad ways our brains play with our experience of one thing as another: a cup of warm (rather than iced) coffee as personal warmth, the heavier clipboard for my dossier showing my gravity, the '“mutual symbolic concessions” of no material benefit' that hang in the balance of peacemaking along with the more palpable and perhaps likely-seeming material concessions like 'water rights, placement of borders, and the extent of militarization allowed' to occupied people like Palestinians.

Talking around the problem that academics like me often fall into--the belief in rational appeals--Sapolsky ends his essay with a call for thoughtful engagement with the ways we might alleviate the suffering and disgust people feel toward the ills of the world by our comforting and empathetic use of symbolism.
Nelson Mandela was wrong when he advised, “Don’t talk to their minds; talk to their hearts.” He meant talk to their insulas and cingulate cortices and all those other confused brain regions, because that confusion could help make for a better world.
I am heartened (corticied?) by this idea, staunchly as I might wish to press metaphor into service to wrest the material into view, and I am left musing about what tones of explanation might make political economy more enticing.

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Monday, 8 November 2010

The Final Metaphor

I am on a prowl for poetry. I search for offset, italicized lines, not excited as one would presume, but an apprehensive, hesitant hunter. I feel, in advance, not that the poem will disappoint me, but that I will disappoint it.

This time I may be in luck. One-stanza poem by Wislawa Szymborska (NYRB, LVII, 17), that begins, So long as that woman from Rijksmuseum / In painted quiet and concentration/ keeps pouring milk day after day / from the pitcher to the bowl… Here I try to remember, faintly familiar mode of the image, Vermeer, it must be, because it is the title of the poem. But my memory is fickle. So I turn the computer on, and Google Vermeer images. Of course, there it is, the second image. Just as I thought I had remembered, a girl pouring milk. I try to get back into the poem / the World hasn’t earned / their world’s end. I wait, to feel something. Nothing. I’m not cultured enough.

I turn a few more pages. A whole article about a poet, Seamus Heaney, and I’m reviving my desire to be touched by a poem. The first lines I see… A rowan like a lipsticked girl / Between the by-road and the main road… A rowan? I go to my computer again, and Google rowan images. It’s a tree with red berry-like cluster. In my mind I thought it was a bird. Well, I can see it, a rowan like a lipsticked girl, that’s good. I can see it, but I feel nothing again. I skim through other stanzas here an there, like a choosy window-shopper, but again, all I see are words that I need to Google – kesh water, sphagnum moss, immortelles. I am not natured enough.

It almost makes me want to cry – the futility. I turn my computer off. I don’t want to Google image my poetry any more. But then, what do I do? Become more cultured, natured? Or give poetry up? And then I remember. This time I go to my bookshelf. Neruda. Naked, you are simple as a hand / Smooth, earthly, small… transparent, round / You have moon lines and apple paths; / Naked, you are slender as the wheat… I stop, and look around. My room is silent, the computer screen black, no longer panting for yet another thing to be looked up. I look back at the poem. Naked, you are tiny as your fingernail / Subtle and curved in the rose-colored dawn…, and I feel quiet, just the kind of quiet I was hoping for.

A relief - that for the uncultured, unnatured brutes like me, there still remains the final metaphor.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Stories on the Screen (and an Announcement)

Partly in response to some people saying that two posts a week is too much to keep up with, the editors of OnFiction will, for an experimental period of the next two months, post once a week, on Mondays. We'll reconsider frequency of posting at the beginning of January.


I've recently been reading books on screenwriting. Today I'll review Story by Robert McKee, who taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and now travels the world giving story seminars. It's a mixture of stern injunction "Never … mistake eccentricity for originality" (p. 8), lofty aspiration such as "… an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility" (p. 131), and close analyses of examples of successful screenplays. The most interesting parts, for me, were the analyses because whereas the novel and the short story aim to enable emotionally engaged reflection by the reader, film—or so it seems from the point of view of screenwriters—aims to glue the audience to the screen in moment-by-moment concentration for two hours. And, whereas a writer of a novel may think of the depiction of a scene in terms of two pages of print, the screenwriter must think of the equivalent in terms of many hours of work by several dozen people at a cost of more than $200,000. Each moment of film, therefore, needs to have a special quality, and this fact helps to contribute to the interest of close analysis of screenplays.

Telepathic communication between minds doesn't occur, but to me reading a novel by George Eliot or a short story by Anton Chekhov comes close. In a good film, something else occurs: a watching of people with whom one empathizes as they make decisions in pursuit of their goals. A film (says McKee) is a story of desire. In a two-hour story of a character's desire, we can recognize workings of our own desires. Is that what keeps us glued to the screen? I wonder what you think.

Some of the terms used in screenwriting seem familiar in the analysis of print fiction: "scene" is an example. But in film, it has a tighter specification. There are between 40 and 60 scenes in a typical film, therefore although some scenes may last 30 seconds and others may last six minutes, on average scenes last three minutes. Motivated by desire, each must accomplish a turning point, a change in value for one or more characters, that moves the story forward.

At the next level down, I would have expected the units to be shots. In screenplays there certainly are specifications for shots in terms of scene set-ups, and camera positions in relation to settings and characters. In reading screenplays I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness of these specifications. But McKee's energy of analysis is devoted not to shots but to beats. A beat is a unit of movement in the zig-zag line of desire. McKee is keen to tell us that all story is conflict, and that therefore one must concentrate on the story's antagonists, but really, it seems to me, each story beat is a fulcrum that balances cooperation and conflict. And, although, film dialogue is supposed to sound natural, the real purpose of each utterance is to allow a viewer a sense of the desire as it affects each partner in the dialogue, and to sense what's not being said.

Casablanca is one of the most famous Hollywood films, set in a bar in Casablanca run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) at which people wait during World War II to obtain exit visas so that they can escape to USA. One scene analyzed by McKee comes after a flashback to the love affair of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick in Paris some years previously, which ended with her standing him up at the railway station, from which they had arranged to escape just before the Nazi occupation began. Now, in Casablanca, they have met again, when she went to visit him in his flat above his bar, where Rick was drunk, bitter, and insulting. Next day, in a street market an Arab linen dealer is trying to sell Ilsa a lace bedsheet. Here is part of McKee's analysis of what he calls Beat #3 of this scene (p. 263).
I'm sorry I was in no condition to receive visitors when you called on me last night.

Rick's action: APOLOGIZING.

It doesn't matter.

Ilsa's reaction: REJECTING HIM AGAIN.
In terms of linguistics, one might say: "Ah, I see: a beat is an exchange of speech acts." And that's right to the first approximation. One difference is that in the better kinds of film, because of the accumulations of the story and characterization, there is an even larger array than Searle describes of extra-linguistic meaning to each speech act. In Casablanca, Rick's and Ilsa's speech acts express intense desires, and in this scene it becomes sharply clear to the audience that Rick's desire is, despite his bitterness, to find a way of renewing his relationship with Ilsa. And, despite her being strongly drawn to Rick, hers is for putting their affair behind her and escaping from occupied Europe with her husband, the renowned Resistance fighter, Victor Laszlo. Each beat moves the story forward: Rick approaches, Ilsa rejects him. The scriptwriter's words, along with the actors' non-verbal implications reflect the intensity of the desires into our minds. The whole scene, according to McKee is 11 beats, the last of which is a final rejection in which Ilsa tells Rick that in Paris she was already married to Laszlo. Rick is utterly crushed. He, and we the audience, can only think Ilsa was just passing her time with him, not serious. What neither Rick nor we know, is that in Paris, she thought her husband was dead, and that he returned on the day that she had arranged to leave with Rick.

Michael Curtiz (Director). (1942). Casablanca. USA.

Robert McKee (1997). Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. New York: ReganBooks.

John Searle (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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