Identification with media characters is a key component of viewers’ propensity to become engaged and involved in media content. Identification is an imaginative process that is evoked as a response to characters presented in mediated texts, whereby audiences feel as if they are part of the world depicted by the mediated text. When identifying with characters, audience members experience the events described by the plot not as external viewers, but rather from the perspective of the character with which they identify, and as if they were part of the story. Zillmann (2002) argues that because viewers often respond to characters they are obviously responding to them as witnesses (i.e., experiencing them from the outside), but this criticism is valid only if one assumes that the responses to characters are constant over time and across viewers and can take only one form. Most likely, identification and other forms of response (such as parasocial interaction and relationships) are intertwined and people move in and out of these varying forms as they view (Wilson 1993).
Identifying with a character means feeling an affinity toward the character that is so strong that we become absorbed in the text and come to an empathic understanding for feelings the character experiences, and for his or her motives and goals. We experience what happens to the characters as if it happens to us, while, momentarily at least, forgetting ourselves as audience members, and this intensifies our viewing experience (Cohen 2001). Thus, identification has both affective (empathy) and cognitive (understanding goals and motives, perspective taking) components. Though the relationships audience members develop with characters can take other forms (e.g., parasocial interaction, liking, attraction, imitation), identification describes the most psychologically involving relationship, but one that, unlike some of its counterparts, is a process that is temporary and intermittent even if its effects can be long-lasting.
Studies of media effects and reception have found that identification with characters has important effects on audiences. Such identification has been related to more arousal, emotion, and pleasure (Fiske 1989). Identification also affects how viewers interpret TV series and increases the persuasive effects of celebrities (Basil 1996). Ethnographic work has found that teens do not adopt values portrayed by their television heroes, but rather their identification with TV characters allows them to explore possible ways of achieving the values and roles they adopt from their families. In sum, it seems that Morley (1992, 209) was correct when arguing that: “One can hardly imagine any television text having any effect whatever without that identification.”
Somewhat less clear than the effects of identification are its causes. Intuitively it is suggested that one identifies more strongly with characters that are most similar to oneself. However, studies of how children choose favorite characters point to choices that are based on similarity to what children aspire to, rather than on actual demographic similarity. Other studies show mixed results, suggesting that for some audience members certain kinds of similarity may promote identification, but in many other cases people prefer and identify with characters that are different from them in very fundamental ways. Overall, audience members have been found to select and identify with characters across gender, class, and age. People’s capacity for identification with characters who are very different from themselves is demonstrated by their ability to identify even with animated and animal characters.
Other factors that influence identification have to do with the depiction of the characters themselves. Logically, we are more likely to identify with characters that are portrayed positively (Hoffner & Cantor 1991). Viewers tend to identify more strongly with heroes than with villains, and character traits such as strength, humor, and physical attractiveness have been identified as important in favorite character selection. However, if the narrative structure of a story supports identification with villains, audience members have shown the capacity to identify with them (a notable example was the identification with the evil J. R. Ewing in the 1980s series Dallas).
Because identification is so heavily dependent on perspective and empathy, how stories are told can influence who becomes the target of identification and to what degree such identification will develop (Livingstone 1987). Literary scholars suggest that allowing a character to narrate the story can increase identification with that character. Possibly, using a first-person perspective in film can produce similar effects. More subjective narratives should, then, promote greater identification with a hero, as should suspenseful narratives. Indeed, our ability to identify with the characters in a story is often used as a measure of our opinion of the quality of the narrative and the skill involved in its creation. Finally, because identification occurs in the minds of audiences, it depends on the proclivities and capabilities of individual viewers, listeners, or readers. Gender and age have been found to be determinants of the intensity of identification, as have individual capacities for empathy and relationship styles. On the other hand, the intuitive assumption that lonely people are most likely to identify strongly with media characters as a compensation for their lack of satisfaction from their interpersonal relationships has consistently failed to find empirical support (e.g., Rubin et al. 1985; Tsao 1996).
Though the research on identification is no longer in its infancy, it has yielded only limited understanding of this phenomenon. Lack of conceptual clarity, use of inconsistent definitions and measurement, and heavy reliance on self-report methodologies have plagued this area of research. One can legitimately question the validity of people’s insight into and reports about deep psychological processes such as identification. However, the continued scholarly interest in this area, and the recognition of the centrality of identification to the social and personal significance of media in modern living, promise a bright future for the study of identification. New research tools will lead to new paradigms and greater understanding of this important phenomenon.
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