The past three decades have witnessed a considerable increase in empirical research into the origins, contents, and effects of people’s fantasy and imagination. What exactly is meant by fantasy and imagination, however, often remains unclear. Moreover, the two terms are often used without distinction, suggesting that they capture one and the same experience. Of course, fantasy and imagination overlap to some extent. Both activities require the generation of thoughts, and in both activities associative thinking plays a role. However, there are also differences between the two activities. First, fantasy usually takes place separately from the context from which the fantasy emerged. Fantasizing is a shift of attention away from an ongoing task or external stimulus toward a response to an internal stimulus. Imagination, by contrast, does not necessarily take place apart from an external context. Imagination is the ability to reproduce images or concepts originally derived from the basic senses but now reflected in one’s consciousness (Singer 1966).
A second difference between fantasy and imagination lies in the degree of goal directedness. Fantasizing is typically a free-floating mental activity (Klinger 1990). Imagination, on the other hand, is more goal directed. Typical examples of imagination are efforts to visualize the appearance of a monster described in a book, to “see” a friend’s face when she is not around, or to give an accurate account of a movie just seen.
Fantasy and/or imagination can be related to media exposure in three successive phases, namely before, during, and after exposure. This article focuses only on the first phase. The role of fantasy and imagination during and after exposure to media content is discussed by Valkenburg and Peter (2006). The role of fantasy and imagination before exposure to entertainment lies in their potential to influence one’s selective exposure to media content. Three hypotheses have been proposed for how certain types of fantasy may cause changes in people’s exposure to media entertainment: the escapism hypothesis, the thematic correspondence hypothesis, and the thematic compensation hypothesis.
According to the escapism hypothesis, exposure to media entertainment is stimulated by an overproduction of unpleasant fantasies. There are two versions of the escapism hypothesis. First, the thought-blocking hypothesis argues that individuals suffering from many unpleasant fantasies expose themselves more often to media content in order to drive away these unpleasant thoughts. Second, the boredom-avoidance hypothesis argues that individuals suffering from a fantasy style called “poor attentional control” spend more time with media content. Individuals with poor attentional control are easily bored and distracted, and hence experience a great deal of fantasies, mind-wandering, and drifting thoughts (Henning & Vorderer 2001). Both versions of the escapism hypothesis have been investigated only in correlational research. Consistent with the thought-blocking hypothesis, people with an unpleasant fantasy style watched more television (McIlwraith 1998). In line with the boredom-avoidance hypothesis, people suffering from poor attentional control watched more television in general and more entertainment programs in particular (Schallow & McIlwraith 1986). News and informational programs were watched less frequently by these people, probably because news and informational programs are less likely to fulfill an escapist function than entertainment programs.
The thematic correspondence hypothesis argues that the themes people fantasize about directly influence the types of entertainment they prefer to view. It assumes, for example, that people select more violent or heroic entertainment contents if they have more aggressive or heroic fantasies. This hypothesis received support in a series of studies (Huesmann & Eron 1986). It is, however, an open question whether fantasy is the causal factor in this relationship because watching violent entertainment may also stimulate people to fantasize more about such themes. The fantasy–media exposure relationship may be bidirectional: certain types of media content could stimulate corresponding fantasy themes, which in turn could stimulate interest in watching these media contents.
The thematic compensation hypothesis proposes that people select media contents that reflect those types of fantasies that they cannot produce themselves. For example, individuals who are unable to produce arousing sexual fantasies may turn to erotica or pornography. This hypothesis is consistent with Freud’s (1908/1962) assumption that one’s motivation for fantasies is unsatisfied wishes. The thematic correspondence hypothesis presumes a negative relationship between fantasizing about specific contents and the viewing of corresponding program contents. However, the research to date has only shown null and positive relationships between exposure to specific media contents and corresponding fantasies. As discussed, frequent viewing of aggressive media content goes together with more fantasies about aggressive themes. Frequent watching of erotic content is related to fantasizing about similar themes (Leitenberg & Henning 1995). These findings suggest that the thematic compensation hypothesis may not be tenable.
Two out of three hypotheses forwarded in this article seem to be valid. Both the escapism hypothesis and the thematic correspondence hypothesis received empirical support. However, the thematic compensation hypothesis, which assumes that people choose entertainment themes that are opposite to their fantasies, appears to be invalid.
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