Although not explicitly focused on written narratives, Tal-Or and Papirman (2007) were intrigued by the concept of media consumers confusing events in a fictional universe with facts from the real world. For instance, one interesting aspect of watching a movie is how viewers perceive the actors portraying the various characters. Very often, fans of a TV show can come to confuse the traits of the character with those of the actor playing that character. Actors who play doctors on TV frequently get asked medical advice and those who play villains on soap operas often receive very negative reactions from fans in real life. In real-life interactions, people tend to attribute others’ behaviour to their personality rather than their situation, making the fundamental attribution error (FAE) (Ross, 1977). In two studies, Tal-Or and Papirman tested the theory that individuals would also make this error when evaluating actors, by improperly ascribing a fictional character’s traits to the actor’s personality, despite knowing the character is scripted and the actor is in a situation wherby he or she must behave a certain way.
In the first study, after reading a description of a male actor that included some accurate biographical information, participants were assigned to view a ten-minute scene from a movie in which this actor was either playing a positive character who was sympathetic and kind, or a negative character who was ruthless and brutal. Afterward they rated the actor’s personality. As predicted, participants who saw the actor playing the positive character rated him higher on positive traits than those who saw him playing the negative character. There were no effects of participants’ gender or previous knowledge of the actor.
The second study took into account how being really absorbed with the narrative and observing the actor playing multiple roles might impact viewers’ likelihood of making the FAE. Participants again read a description of the actor that included accurate biographical information. Half were then randomly assigned to only view him in one scene (positive or negative), and the other half were assigned to view him in both scenes (positive and negative) with which scene was viewed first randomized. Afterward, transportation into the narrative and perceptions of the actor’s personality were evaluated. The results replicated those of the first study. Additionally, participants who only viewed the negative character were more likely to make the FAE than those who only viewed the positive character. As predicted, greater transportation into the narrative increased the FAE, whereas viewing more than one scene did not have an impact on its occurrence. Nevertheless, the second scene participants watched had a stronger impact on how they evaluated the actor than the first scene.
These studies were able to show that the FAE might provide an account of how people perceive actors. It is an interesting finding because it highlights the strength of the FAE. Even when viewers are aware that a character’s behaviour is scripted, they are still prone to making this error and inaccurately attributing the character’s behaviour to the actor’s personality.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 10 (pp. 174-200). New York: Academic Press.
Tal-Or, N., & Papirman, Y. (2007). The fundamental attribution error in attributing fictional figures’ characteristics to the actors. Media Psychology, 9, 331-345.
Guest post by Elizabeth van Monsjou.