Dolf Zillmann (2000) has proposed a highly regarded theory, called disposition theory, according to which we acquire a disposition to like fictional characters who behave well, and to dislike those who behave badly. People who watch movies and read fictional books become very concerned with whether characters behave well. Zillmann says, for instance, that each person who engages with a drama or comedy is “a moral monitor who applauds or condemns the intentions and actions of characters” (p. 38).
In a number of experiments it has been found that people experience pleasure when a liked character behaves well and succeeds. People experience frustration and anxiety when a disliked character behaves badly and succeeds. If, in a thriller with a confusing plot you wonder which character is the real baddie, he’s the one who acts with disdain to an underling.
When a good character achieves retribution for a wrong that he or she has suffered, or when a bad character is punished, people are sensitive to the level of revenge or punishment that occurs. We enjoy stories more when this seems appropriate. There is even a name for this: poetic justice.
René Weber and colleagues (2008) put this theory to the test by asking whether people’s feelings towards characters in a story, and the extent to which characters deserve what happens to them, underlies enjoyment of the story. More than 500 female students were asked to evaluate 12 characters in a televised soap opera. These women were not fans of the soap opera, which ran on a television channel every weekday for ten weeks, and they were not asked to watch the whole series. Each woman watched, in her own time, just one week’s episodes on a DVD she was given. After watching the episodes each participant made ratings of each character (from extremely moral to extremely immoral) of outcomes for each character (from extremely good to extremely bad). She then rated the extent to which she found the show enjoyable and entertaining. At the same time, the researchers recorded Nielsen ratings (the television industry’s estimate of viewers’ numbers) for the show. The findings were that enjoyment of the women in the survey, and the Nielsen ratings, were highest when good outcomes occurred to characters who behaved well and bad outcomes occurred to characters who behaved badly.
Weber, R., Tamborini, R., Lee, H. E., & Stipp, H. (2008). Soap opera exposure and enjoyment: A longitudinal test of disposition theory. Media Psychology, 11, 462-487.
Zillmann, D. (2000). Humor and comedy. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal (pp. 37-57). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Thanks, Keith, for mentioning this. I admit I don't know this literature, or this theory, but from your summary I would react by saying:
Sounds odd. Characters are good or bad? No room for conflicts? Characters we can't decide about?
Actions that seem good/bad, but turn out to have unpredicted/unpredictable consequences? Characters that seem good/bad and later prove to be something else? Intentions that are not simply and clearly good or bad but are a mixed bag?
(Or is there a cynical possibility: good simply means 'like us'?)
Thank you Mark, for this comment. I think the research by Weber et al. is interesting, but, as you point out, it can be thought of as lacking in nuance or development. Part of the difficulty of doing psychological research on a topic like this is that one usually has to try and answer one question at a time, and this can—indeed often does—come out sounding a bit simplistic. That is one of the reasons, I think, why collaboration and conversation between psychology and literary theory is so useful.
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