Escapism was introduced as an explanation for people’s use of entertainment media in the 1950s. The tremendous popularity of entertainment programming in radio and, especially at the beginning of the 1960s, in television inspired communication researchers to discuss the reasons why mass audiences felt attracted to these programs and what consequences should be expected from this development. Escapism – a Latin-based term that could be translated as “tendency to evade one’s current situation or environment” – was elaborated as an important motivation of entertainment consumption. The concept centers on the assumption that diversion and distraction from real-life circumstances are desires felt by many individuals in many situations, and that entertainment media can serve the purpose of diversion very effectively. The most influential reflection on escapism was authored by Katz and Foulkes (1962). Their work exemplifies that escapism theory and research was dedicated both to motivational determinants of entertainment use and implications of escapist media consumption for the individual and society at large.
Descriptive and Normative Substance
The original understanding of escapism was rooted in the assumption that many workingclass people in western mass societies were alienated and suffered from poor life satisfaction. “Alienation” was assumed to breed the desire to evade everyday sorrows and troubles by involving oneself in fantasy worlds that offer relief and distraction. “Escapist worlds, for most critics, are made of unreal or improbable people who are very good or very bad (or very good–bad) and whose successes and failures conveniently cater to the supposed wishes of the audience” (Katz & Foulkes 1962, 382). As the typical content of 1950s and 1960s entertainment programming indicated a sharp contrast to the stipulated social reality of “the masses” (e.g., radio soap operas), involvement with such programming was theorized to serve the function of making people forget temporarily about their troublesome life circumstances by “diving” into mediated worlds of (more) happiness and luck. Some empirical evidence was collected that supported the need for diversion and “escape” as the motivational driver of entertainment consumption (Pearlin 1959).
In addition to the motivational dimension of escapism, the notion was also discussed in terms of the effects of escapist media use on people’s life and performance in social roles. Mostly negative consequences of such media use were stipulated. Katz and Foulkes (1962) list examples of conceivable dysfunctional effects of escapist media use at different levels. One is the level of political affairs (e.g., “a housewife is assured by a soap opera that there is perfect justice in the world, and, as a result, is socially unconcerned and politically apathetic” [Katz & Foulkes 1962, 386]). They refer to interpersonal relations as another dimension of escapism impact (e.g., “an adolescent goes to the movies, whatever is playing, to get away from his parents, and there is a resulting strain in the parent–child relationship” [Katz & Foulkes 1962, 386]).
Intrapsychic dysfunctions are suggested as a third dimension of negative consequences of escapism (e.g., “through identification with a drama character, a person’s own impulses are negated or denied, impairing personality integration” [Katz & Foulkes 1962, 386]). While empirical evidence for such negative impact was scarce, it is clear that a normative dimension was loaded onto the concept of escapism from its very beginning. Katz and Foulkes (1962) warned against estimating solely negative consequences from entertainment media content and suggested positive feedback from escapist media use to social role performance as a realistic alternative. However, the term “escapism” was and partly still is today negatively valenced through its connection with normative tenets of mass audiences seduced by the media industry not to cope with, but just to forget, their real-life challenges and problems.
Contemporary Research Developments
While the notion of escapism has not been addressed by much research since the public debate in the 1950s and 1960s, its motivational component (i.e., a diversion and relief motivation as driver of media use) has been picked up in various lines of research.
For instance, Anderson et al. (1996) found positive relationships between personal stress level and preference for entertainment media. Henning and Vorderer (2001) elaborated a specific escape motivation, namely the desire to avoid thinking about oneself. Based on research on the “need for cognition” trait, they demonstrated that the wish to avoid situations of intense thinking predicted television viewing.
In terms of communication theory, elements of escapism are reflected in most approaches to media selection, for instance mood management theory (Zillmann 1988), and contemporary accounts of uses and gratifications (LaRose & Eastin 2004). Thus, the tradition of escapism has continued in the history of research on media choice. In contrast, the normatively loaded effects component of the original concept formulation (i.e., the proposition of dysfunctional impact of escapism on people’s life performance) has been criticized, and contemporary research rather argues for the benign effects of entertainment consumption for people’s lives. The notion of well-being has been advanced in the social sciences (Kahneman et al. 1999), and some scholars consider the use of media entertainment and the accompanying “escape” from real-life stressors as a benign contribution to well-being (that is, as “vacation” instead of “flight” from real-life circumstances; cf. Klimmt 2006).
Overall, the concept of escapism has been very influential and has founded important elements of today’s communication research on media choice. It is a good example, however, of how theory building can mix up conceptual and normative issues and, as a result, justify and promote pessimism and stereotyped attitudes concerning “mass audiences” using “mass media.” Nevertheless, a careful consideration and theoretical elaboration of the actual scientific substance of escapism has turned out to be very fruitful (e.g., Henning & Vorderer 2001) and is likely to continue to be so in future (entertainment) research as well.
- Anderson, D. R., Collins, P. A., Schmitt, K. L., & Jacobvitz, R. S. (1996). Stressful life events and television viewing. Communication Research, 23(3), 243 –260.
- Bryant, J., & Vorderer, P. (eds.) (2006). Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Henning, B., & Vorderer, P. (2001). Psychological escapism: Predicting the amount of television viewing by need for cognition. Journal of Communication, 51, 100 –120.
- Kahneman, D., Diener, E., & Schwarz, N. (eds.) (1999). Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Sage.
- Katz, E., & Foulkes, D. (1962). On the use of the mass media as “escape”: Clarification of a concept. Public Opinion Quarterly, 26, 377–388.
- Klimmt, C. (2006). Computerspielen als Handlung: Dimensionen und Determinanten des Erlebens interaktiver Unterhaltungsangebote [Playing computer games as action: Dimensions and determinants of the experience of interactive entertainment]. Cologne: Halem.
- LaRose, R., & Eastin, M. S. (2004). A social cognitive theory of Internet uses and gratifications: Toward a new model of media attendance. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 48(3), 358 –377.
- Pearlin, L. (1959). Social and personal stress and escape television viewing. Public Opinion Quarterly, 23, 255 –259.
- Zillmann, D. (1988). Mood management: Using entertainment to full advantage. In L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher, & E. T. Higgins (eds.), Communication, social cognition, and affect. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 147–171.
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