Wednesday 8 October 2008

Research Bulletin: Social Influence of TV Characters

The issue of anthropomorphization is a key one for the study of the psychology of fiction. To what degree do we imbue fictional characters with human-like attributes? To what extent do we see Mrs. Dalloway, or Dr. House, as real persons and treat them as such? The journal Social Cognition recently published a special issue devoted to this topic, and it includes a very interesting article by Wendi Gardner and Megan Knowles (2008). These researchers were specifically interested in favourite television characters, and conducted two studies to examine both what makes us see these characters as real people, and what one outcome of this perception might be. As a control, they examine nonfavourite characters from the same show, which were presumed to be just as familiar to the participants. In their first study, participants perceived their favourite television character to be more real than a nonfavourite character, and this appears to be largely a function of their liking for that character (controlling for perceived similarity between the participant and that character). Their second study used a very intriguing paradigm to demonstrate that the influence of fictional persons on our behaviour parallels that of real persons. Gardner and Knowles capitalized on a social psychological phenomenon known as social facilitation, in which the presence of others leads us to perform better on tasks or actions that we know well, but do worse on things that we are less familiar with (Bond & Titus, 1983). Thus, if you are excellent at shooting a basketball, having other people around will make you shoot the ball better, but if you’re not very good at hoops, the presence of others will actually make you play worse. The researchers brought people into the lab and had them perform either a familiar task (i.e., copying words with their dominant hand) or a novel one (i.e., copying words with their nondominant hand). Participants did this while in the presence of either their favourite TV character, or a nonfavourite TV character, using a very clever bit of deception in which some “media researchers” ostensibly left their materials lying around the lab. What they found was that the typical social faciliation effect occurred when people were in the same room with their favourite television character, but not a nonfavourite character. In essence, the favourite character was treated as a real person would be, but the nonfavourite character was not treated in the same way. This is a fascinating finding that demonstrates how fictional persons can have a real impact on our real-world behaviour, but also the boundary conditions of this effect: these fictional characters have to be perceived as real. Garnder and Knowles open their article with a quote from Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, with which I will close:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you…, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
If anyone would like a copy of this paper, please feel free to contact me to request one.

Bond, C. F. & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: A meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 265–292.

Gardner, W. L. & Knowles, M. L. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26, 156–168.

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