In general, suspension of disbelief is understood to be an audience’s tolerance of the fictionality of media content. The phrase means that the audience accepts limitations in the presented story, sacrificing realism, and occasionally logic and believability, as well as the media content’s aesthetic quality for the sake of enjoyment. Originally, the term traces back to the British Romantic and literary critic Samuel T. Coleridge (1772–1834), who used it to describe the necessity for readers of poetry to accept the fictive world proposed in literary work. Although Coleridge proposed suspension of disbelief as a stance a user has to adopt willingly – he speaks of the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1960, 169) – in later publications the “willing” is often omitted. Only recently, suspension of disbelief has also been connected with the usage of electronic media such as virtual realities and movies, or, more generally, of narratives.
Since Coleridge had introduced the idea of suspension of disbelief, various authors, especially literary and theatrical scholars, have referred to it again and again. Some of them remained purely descriptive, describing the fundamental idea of suspension of disbelief and the background of Coleridge’s thoughts, but without explaining the phenomenon. Others emphasized the audience’s surrendering reality-testing when suspending disbelief. Literary scholars in general assume that this abdication of reality-testing is a stance of basic trust users adopt directly before they start reading.
In the field of communication, researchers also refer to the notion of suspension of disbelief. In contrast to the considerations of the literary scholars, however, communication scholars connect suspension of disbelief more closely with the process of using fictional media content, especially narratives. Yet there is some disaccord concerning the usefulness of the construct. While Zillmann (2006) negates the necessity of suspending disbelief for evoking emotional reactions, the construct’s value for persuasion research is emphasized. Slater and Rouner (2002, 180) argue that suspension of disbelief – which they see as the counterpart of counterarguing, i.e., “the generation of thoughts that dispute or are inconsistent with the persuasive argument” – provides an opportunity to influence individuals who would ordinarily be resistant to persuasion. Similar is the reasoning of Shrum et al. (2005) when connecting suspension of disbelief – which they regard as the reduction of counterarguing – to cultivation effects. The reason for suspending disbelief, or in more general terms not critically evaluating a narrative, is universally seen in the individual’s desire not to destroy a pleasurable experience, such as involvement in or transportation into the story. In taking up these considerations, Böcking and Wirth (2005) suggested a tripartite model of narrative processing consisting of the components belief, disbelief, and suspension of disbelief. Belief is understood as a form of uncritical processing of a narrative’s content regarding its reality adequacy and plot consistency. On the basis of insights into information processing it is considered to take place mostly automatically and unconsciously. Disbelief, on the other hand, is the individual’s critical thinking about both aspects. It arises if the user notices flaws or inconsistencies in the narrative and considers them to be disturbing. Suspension of disbelief, finally, is the user’s not focusing on violations of realism aspects and plot consistency, although he or she has noticed them.
- Böcking, S., & Wirth, W. (2005). Conceptualizing suspension of disbelief for communication research. Paper presented at the 55th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), New York, May.
- Busselle, R., Ryabolova, A., & Wilson, B. (2004). Running a good story: Cultivation, perceived realism and narrative. Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 29, 365– 378.
- Coleridge, S. T. (1960). Biographia literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions. London: J. M. Dent. (Original work published 1817).
- Green, M. C., Garst, J., & Brock, T. C. (2004). The power of fiction: Determinants and boundaries. In L. J. Shrum (ed.), The psychology of media entertainment: Blurring the lines between entertainment and persuasion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 161–176.
- Holland, N. N. (1967). The “willing suspension of disbelief” revisited. Centennial Review, 11, 1–23.
- Kauvar, G. B. (1969). Coleridge, Hawkesworth, and the willing suspension of disbelief. Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, 5, 91–94.
- Shrum, L. J., Burroughs, J. E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2005). Television’s cultivation of material values. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 473–479.
- Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. (2002). Entertaiment-education and elaboration likelihood: Understanding the processing of narrative persuasion. Communication Theory, 12, 173–191.
- Zillmann, D. (2006). Dramaturgy for emotions from fictional narration. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 215–238.