Media scholars and consumers alike ponder the question “why do we enjoy the stories we enjoy?” Affective disposition theory is one of the leading explanations of the enjoyment process. The theory – more accurately, set of theories – conceptualizes enjoyment of media content as a product of a viewer’s emotional affiliations with characters and the storyline outcomes associated with those characters. Although the theory does not seek to predict whether an individual will like or dislike a specific character or story, it provides keen insight into the process through which people enjoy these things.
As suggested above, affective disposition theory is a title given to a set of propositions about the media enjoyment process that, throughout the entertainment literature, is also referred to simply as “disposition theory,” “disposition theories,” and “disposition-based theories”. The first such theory was developed to describe how people appreciate jokes involving the belittling of a person or group. The principles of the resulting “disposition theory of humor” (Zillmann & Cantor 1972) were subsequently applied to the appreciation of drama and sports, yielding the “disposition theory of drama” (Zillmann & Cantor 1976), and the “disposition theory of sports spectatorship” (Zillmann et al. 1989), respectively.
Entertainment scholars have also applied the key concepts of the theory to examine suspense, frightening entertainment, action films, reality-based television shows, crime-punishment dramas, and even news programming. Differences between these genres dictate subtle differences in the application of the theory’s principles, rendering efforts to develop a single, all-encompassing affective disposition theory somewhat problematic. However, as discussed below, the process by which enjoyment is derived through dispositional affiliations and subsequent character outcomes is similar regardless of the media content. For the sake of clarity and because the majority of the work in the area has focused on it, fictional drama will be used as an example in the following section.
As noted above, affective disposition theory posits that enjoyment of media content is a function of a viewer’s emotional responses to characters and to the outcomes experienced by those characters throughout an unfolding narrative. In short, the theory predicts that enjoyment increases when liked characters experience positive outcomes and/or when disliked characters experience negative ones. Conversely, enjoyment diminishes when liked characters experience negative outcomes and/or disliked characters experience positive ones.
According to the theory, viewers of fictional drama form alliances with the characters portrayed. Stated more simply, drama viewers like and cheer for certain characters, while despising and rooting against others. Because these alliances are based primarily on emotional reactions to the characters, the affiliations formed are called “affective dispositions.” Accordingly, these affective dispositions can range from extremely positive through indifference to extremely negative, and may fluctuate as the story unfolds. With regard to enjoyment, these feelings held toward the characters are of ultimate importance.
As one might expect, though, the nature of drama and, indeed, the social nature of humans guide the formation of dispositional affiliations to some degree, preventing viewers from capriciously selecting whom they revere and revile. The drama viewer’s emotional side-taking must be morally justified. According to affective disposition theory, viewers continually judge the rightness or wrongness of a character’s actions. As a result, viewers come to like characters whose actions and motivations are judged to be morally correct, while viewers dislike characters whose actions and motivations are judged to be morally incorrect.
Once characters are liked, viewers can empathize with (i.e., experience anticipatory emotions toward) their troubles and hope for their triumph over them, in much the same way as happens with real-life companions. In fact, as in relationships in reality, the stronger the positive feelings held, the stronger the empathic reaction. On the other hand, once characters are despised, viewers cannot empathize with them and are morally justified in wishing for their demise. In the same way, then, the stronger the negative affect felt toward the hated character, the stronger the negative or counterempathic reaction. If the outcomes wished for by viewers are depicted in the narrative, then enjoyment increases in proportion to the strength of the affective dispositions held. If those hoped-for outcomes are not portrayed, then enjoyment suffers in proportion to the strength of the affective dispositions held.
What Affects Dispositions?
A key factor in determining emotional reactions to characters, as well as a key mechanism for enjoyment of drama, is empathy. Measured as an individual-level variable, empathy varies across viewers, leading to measurable differences in reactions to media characters. For example, persons with higher levels of empathy have been shown to be more likely to sympathize with the victim of a fictional crime and in turn more likely to enjoy a film in which the crime is avenged. However, empathy is of interest after dispositions are formed. As Zillmann noted, “affective dispositions toward persons or their personas virtually control empathy . . . Empathy seems to be governed by such morally derived dispositions” (1994, 44 – 45).
To be expected, several scholars have analyzed the process of moral judgment that leads to dispositions. The work demonstrates that the strength of affiliations held toward characters can vary quite a bit between viewers, presumably due to differences in the unique, subjectively held moral compositions of viewers. Such differences are assumed by the various moral development perspectives that exist. Furthermore, it is thought that moral reasoning is governed and influenced by a complex constellation of factors. Consequently, viewers think about and respond to characters differently, with differing results. In short, if affective dispositions toward characters are derived from moral evaluations of their actions and motives and if viewers differ in the way moral evaluations are made, then affective dispositions toward characters should vary between individual viewers. Finally, because enjoyment is dependent upon these affective dispositions, viewers enjoy certain dramatic narratives more or less than others.
A few entertainment scholars have sought to identify factors that govern the crucial moral judgments of characters. For example, authoritarianism has been associated with greater liking of reality-based crime dramas, while attitudes about vigilantism and punitive punishment have been shown to predict enjoyment of crime-based fiction. In fact, Raney and Bryant (2002) offered a model to describe the process of disposition formation in both affective and cognitive terms. The researchers demonstrated that both affective (e.g., empathy) and cognitive (e.g., subjectively held attitudes about real-world justice) variables were predictive of moral judgments within crime-punishment entertainment, with the outcome of those moral judgments predicting overall enjoyment.
Thus, affective disposition theory contends that dispositional affiliations are developed as the actions and motivations of characters are viewed, with the consumer evaluating the moral correctness of those actions and motivations through their own moral lens. As a result, viewers like and dislike characters to varying degrees. The valence and intensity of those affective dispositions lead the viewers to generate anticipations about the characters’ futures. For liked characters, success is hoped and failure is feared. For hated characters, failure is hoped and success is feared. Enjoyment results from comparing those anticipations to the actual outcomes portrayed. More specifically, highly liked characters engender intensely hoped-for outcomes that when met result in relief, pleasure, and enjoyment. When the hoped-for outcomes are not observed, however, enjoyment suffers. This is the basic affective disposition theory formula.
A review of the various expressions and applications of affective disposition theory yields several principles common across them all. Four such principles are noted below, with suggested lines for future research. First, affective disposition theory is primarily concerned with the enjoyment of media content. As noted above, although the theory cannot predict liking or disliking of a specific character or story, it can serve as a useful aide in understanding the process through which people enjoy these things. Enjoyment is widely accepted as playing a central role in media entertainment experiences; enjoyment as a complex process is similarly acknowledged. Researchers universally embrace the role of affective disposition theory in explaining a portion of the enjoyment puzzle, but they also point to the limitations of any one theory to explain all instances of media enjoyment. More research is needed to examine how the principles and phenomena described by affective disposition theory interact with other psychological and motive conditions of the enjoyment experience.
Second, affective disposition theory concerns emotional responses to media content. Affect is at the heart of the theory, with empathy identified as the primary mechanism guiding emotional responses to characters and their plights. Additionally, researchers acknowledge that various cognitive processes (e.g., moral judgment) play a significant role in the disposition-formation process. In fact, some contend that certain cognitive structures, such as story schemas, may actually precede affective responses. Future research must seek to better understand the relationship between affective and cognitive structures in the media enjoyment process.
Third, affective disposition theory contends that media enjoyment starts with and is driven by the viewer’s feelings about characters. Although empathy and other emotions and attitudes have been identified as important contributors to these feelings, they surely do not completely predict the disposition-formation process. For instance, it is reasonable to assume that various content features (e.g., camera movements, sound effects, music) would influence the formation and maintenance of affective dispositions, as would the individual’s viewing environment, age, or moral maturity. Future research should seek to better understand the complexity of the affective disposition formation process.
Finally, affective disposition theory acknowledges and relies upon differences between viewers’ emotional responsiveness, personal experiences, basal morality, and countless other psychological factors. Because humans are constantly changing, our responses to media content should likewise be dynamic and perhaps somewhat unpredictable across time. For example, prior attitudes about certain characters, mood, pre-existing attitudes about genre, motivation for viewing, ability or willingness to attend to the narrative, and many other factors should influence the enjoyment process. Future research should attempt to integrate these well-established media entertainment effects traditions with affective disposition theory.
- Oliver, M. B. (1996). Influences of authoritarianism and portrayals of race on Caucasian viewers’ responses to reality-based crime dramas. Communication Reports, 9(2), 141–150.
- Raney, A. A. (2004). Expanding disposition theory: Reconsidering character liking, moral evaluations, and enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 348 –369.
- Raney, A. A. (2005). Punishing media criminals and moral judgment: The impact on enjoyment. Media Psychology, 7(2), 145 –163.
- Raney A. A. (2006). The psychology of disposition-based theories of media enjoyment. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), The psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 137– 150.
- Raney, A. A., & Bryant, J. (2002). Moral judgment and crime drama: An integrated theory of enjoyment. Journal of Communication, 52, 402 – 415.
- Zillmann, D. (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33 –51.
- Zillmann, D. (2000). Basal morality in drama appreciation. In I. Bondebjerg (ed.), Moving images, culture, and the mind. Luton: University of Luton Press, pp. 53 – 63.
- Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Viewer’s moral sanction of retribution in the appreciation of dramatic presentations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 572 –582.
- Zillmann, D., & Cantor, J. (1972). Directionality of transitory dominance as a communication variable affecting humor appreciation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 191– 198.
- Zillmann, D., & Cantor, J. (1976). A disposition theory of humor and mirth. In T. Chapman & H. Foot (eds.), Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and application. London: Wiley, pp. 93 – 115.
- Zillmann, D., Bryant, J., & Sapolsky, B. S. (1989). Enjoyment from sports spectatorship. In J. H. Goldstein (ed.), Sports, games, and play: Social and psychological viewpoints, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 241–278.
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