Monday 22 June 2009

A Compelling Empathy

One of the most fascinating aspects of fiction film is that it enables us not just to see how empathy can happen in a drama, but to experience how it can work strongly in ourselves. Four months, three weeks, and two days shows us the workings of empathy both in its plot and in our experience as we watch the film. Set in Romania, the film was written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, who based it on a real story he heard which, he said, affected him for more than fifteen years. The plot revolves round a student, Gabita (played by Laura Vasiliu), who is pregnant. She wants to obtain an abortion at a time when abortions are illegal because the government wants to increase Romania’s birthrate. Gabita is not well organized. She has left it almost too late—four months, three weeks, and two days—and the film is about how her college room-mate, Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) both empathizes and sympathizes with her, and then loyally helps her.

I am afraid this film is not cheerful, but it is deeply psychological. And because we come to feel strongly for the two young women, it is gripping—far more so than the conventional thriller in which people rush about after each other brandishing weapons.

A very basic plot process in fiction is first to enable the reader or audience member to get to know and like the protagonist. Then, according to Zillmann (1994), we mentally take on the plans of the protagonist, feel pleased when they succeed, and displeased when they are impeded. A demonstration of this was made by the distinguished discourse analyst, the late Tom Trabasso, and by Jennifer Chung, who was I think a film student at the time (2004). Their study is the best experiment I know on empathy in fiction. They had 20 viewers watch two well-known films, Vertigo and Blade Runner. All the viewers rated their liking for the films’ protagonists and antagonists. Each film was stopped at 12 points during viewing and ten of the viewers were asked, at each point, to rate how well things were going for the protagonist and how well for the antagonist. Their ratings agreed with the analyses of the researchers. The other ten viewers were asked to identify their own emotions as they watched. At points where the ten viewers who rated the action thought things were going well for the protagonist, the viewers who were asked to identify their emotions felt positive emotions such as happiness and relief. At points where things were going badly for the protagonist, the viewers who were to identify their emotions felt anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and the like. In contrast, when the antagonist was succeeding, those who identified their own emotions felt negatively, and when the antagonist was failing they felt positively.

The process is rather basic. It can apply as well to watching a football match as to watching a film. But what great writers and film makers can do is to enable readers or audiences, as they find themselves following a trajectory of empathy, to understand better their own emotions, and indeed those of the people with whom they are empathizing. At times in Four months, three weeks, and two days, when not much is being said, the sense depicted by Anamaria Marinca who plays Otilia is so compelling that we audience members almost seem to hear her thoughts being spoken aloud in our own minds. The sense of empathy and theory-of-mind for a protagonist is, I think, more beautifully and strongly accomplished in this film than in any other I know. It's a very fine film, and I have placed a longer review of it in our archive of Film Reviews (for which please click here). The film gets a strong four on a five-point scale.

Tom Trabasso & Jennifer Chung (2004). Empathy: Tracking characters and monitoring their concerns in film. Paper presented at the Winter Text Conference, January 23, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Dolf Zillmann (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33–51.


Nicola Morgan said...

Fascinated by your blog. I came across it while looking for one of your articles which I saw referred to in a Sciam article last year about the power of stories. I'm doing a keynote speech at a librarians' conference next week and my theme is the power of fiction and linked importance of empathy for our ability to be wise, thinking, caring humans, and that without those qualities we might as well be machines. I am a novelist myself (for teenagers), also write about the teenage and young brain, and I blog about the writing and publishing process at, where I have now put a link to your blog. I know my blog readers, who are all writers, will be fascinated and educated. Thank you!

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much for this comment, Nicola. I am delighted you like our site. Thanks for giving a link to your site on how to get published, which I have now visited and very much enjoyed. I shall visit it again, as it's on an issue that—in these recessionary days—is close to me. I think the psychology of fiction is relevant to writers because, for the first time, some of the psychological processes that underlie the reading and writing of fiction are beginning to be properly understood in a way that is based on evidence rather than just on personal impressions. There is of course nothing wrong with personal impressions and experience ... just that it is good to have some evidence, and a bit of psychology, in there too.

Nicola Morgan said...

I couldn't agree more. I have a post scheduled for tomorrow evening (UK time), mentioning/praising your site - blog post entitled Narrative Transportation. I think it's a very important idea - I first came across the phrase in the Sciam Mind article. Though I am not a scientist by training, psychology and neuroscience have become a hobby over the last 2o years or so. I LOVE to have science explain observations and personal experience. Hope to keep in touch.

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