What do we mean when we say a story is realistic? At first, that may seem simple. One possibility is that realism is a characteristic of the genre – news is real and a soap opera is not. That explanation may work in many cases, but fiction is intended to capture aspects of reality that are not easily depicted in the news. A soap-opera depiction of a sexual infidelity may capture the emotional reality of that betrayal better than a documentary on the topic. Another possibility is that people think if something looks real, it is real. Certainly, appearance is a cue to realism. For example, each new generation of video game uses increased computer power to make the games look more realistic. But appearance of a video game or television show does not provide a complete picture of the problem. While young children tend to think that what looks real is real, adults know that what something looks like does not always reflect its true nature. No matter how realistic a dragon may look, an adult knows that dragons do not exist.
Such changes in realism judgments as people mature indicate that people use knowledge of the world to judge the realism of stories. For example, police dramas judged highly realistic by many people may seem comical to law enforcement professionals. But even a person’s knowledge about the world cannot be a complete answer. Just comparing a story to what we know falls short even for shows strongly embedded in everyday life. Few viewers of the US television series The West Wing have had real-life experiences working for the president. For most of us, comparing a story to our own experience is totally inadequate for judging the realism of stories about drug dealing in Miami, life as a Jewish merchant in late sixteenth-century Venice, or life on a twenty-fourth-century starship. Yet we seem to be able to make realism judgments about all of those situations.
Scholars now appreciate that judgments about realism result from a complex, often moment-to-moment interaction between a story and the mental processes of the reader, viewer, or player. As we will see, our judgments about realism seem to be linked to both what we know and what we can imagine. Adult judgments of realism depend on sensory information such as the look and sound of a story, as well as on inferential, conceptual, and imaginative judgments about a story.
Finally, realism is not a binary judgment. Stories are not real or unreal. Instead, stories vary in how realistic they are in a variety of ways. Special effects in a fantasy story can make things that cannot happen look extremely realistic. On the other hand, a few words printed on a page about the death of a friend can be devastatingly real. To understand these complexities, we need to understand something about research on realism and how realism judgments change as we mature from child to adult.
Why Is Realism Important?
Many of the media messages we see are in the form of a story, including news, advertising, entertainment, and most recently computer games (Shapiro et al. 2006). Some modern scholars claim that stories are fundamentally the way we understand the world, ourselves, and our social relationships, and are the way we transmit culture.
The notion that realism is an important element of stories is ancient. Realism undoubtedly plays a role in making many stories more compelling. For example, more realistic dramas appear to be more enjoyable (Shapiro & Chock 2003). Realism may also influence mental processing, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, forming parasocial relationships with media characters, aggressiveness, and the effectiveness of health messages. A recent study indicates that realism mediates the relationship between exposure to sexually explicit Internet material and recreational attitudes toward sex. Video-game players consider a high degree of realism one of the most important characteristics of a video game. However, the influence of realism can be very complex.
Some of the earliest modern social science studies on media realism manipulated realism by telling participants that a particular film or video clip was either real or fictional. Almost all find that presentations labeled as “real” encourage aggressiveness more than fictional presentations.
Another set of studies measured a variable called “perceived reality” as a global characteristic of television. Using factor-analytic techniques, three dimensions of perceived reality were often identified in studies: (1) magic window, (2) instruction or utility, and (3) identity. The “magic window” dimension of perceived reality, once seen as characteristic of children’s judgments about TV, has evolved into the semantic component, or “a belief in the reality embodied in the meaning or substance of the message” (Potter 1988). That is, realism is the degree of perceived similarity between mediated characters or situations and real-life characters or situations.
Developmental Trends In Realism Judgment
How children make realism judgments changes in systematic ways with maturity. Young children tend to judge realism based on concrete physical perceptions. What looks real is real, even if it is a dragon. As children mature, they gain experience with the physical and social world, and they learn to use abstract, conceptual, and even hypothetical thinking. What scares children reveals something interesting about how realism judgments change as children mature (Cantor 2001). First, as children get older they are less likely to be frightened by what looks scary but is actually harmless. By middle childhood, most children know that a dragon does not exist even if it is scary-looking. Second, as children mature they are more frightened by real dangers and less by fantasy dangers. However, as children age they become more able to be frightened by depictions of abstract concepts or hypotheticals, such as nuclear war. Children’s ability to distinguish between real and unreal depictions varies with the child’s experience with a particular topic. Even at a young age, children often use their real-world and television experiences to make complex realism judgments, for example about depictions of family life.
Knowledge of other less physically obvious aspects of television (acting, scripting, and rehearsal) become more important for older children. By middle childhood, children start to add more sophisticated categorizations about what is real in addition to judgments about physical characteristics and genre. One distinction seems to be on the basis of factuality – the distinction between events that really happened outside of TV and those that were made up for TV. Another distinction is between fabricated but possible and fabricated but probable or representative. During the passage from middle to late childhood, more and more children define real as probable or plausible, not just possible.
By adulthood a person’s understanding of realism is complex. What a person can imagine or infer about a story contributes as much or more to a sense of realism as what is explicitly presented (Shapiro & McDonald 1992). It is not surprising that people usually rate news as more real than drama. However, adolescents know that television news presents events as less complex, more intense, and more solvable than people know them to be in real life. Adult realism judgments appear to be multidimensional, including plausibility, typicality, factuality, emotional involvement, narrative consistency, and perceptual persuasiveness (Hall 2003). This offers an interesting explanation for some complex realism judgments. For example, science fiction may be judged as not factual or plausible, but may look real and have high involvement and narrative consistency.
Other Meanings Of Real
Recent research indicates that people make judgments about realism in at least two ways. One way is similar to the semantic component defined earlier. A person can judge the absolute likelihood that a depicted event could happen in the real world. By that standard, much of what we see in the media is rare and thus would seem unreal. But people do not seem to do that. That raises another possibility – that people judge how real an event is based on imagining what that event would be like if it were to happen. Thus, earthquakes are absolutely rare. But if an earthquake were to happen, we can judge depicted behaviors and events as more or less realistic in that circumstance. This enables people to judge the realism of unfamiliar contexts and events – a story about prison life, for example. This also allows us to judge the realism of fiction and fantasy. People appear to make both absolute and relative judgments about realism across a wide variety of stories, including advertising, news, drama, and comedy.
Related to relative judgments of realism is the possibility that we make those relative judgments differently for ourselves than for others. This may parallel the “third person” effect. In general, events seem more realistic for others than for ourselves. This reality-person effect appears to be robust and has been detected for a variety of news, entertainment, and commercial messages. Psychologically, the effect appears to be an implicit comparison between self and other.
Realism, Typicality, And Expectations
Several recent studies have explored realism judgments for specific narratives. The more typical the people and events in a story, the more realistic the story seems, but that effect is not as strong when the story appears to come from an unfamiliar culture (Shapiro & Chock 2003, 2004). While realism appears to be strongly tied to our judgments about typicality, the link to expectations about how characters act appears to be more complex. For example, people tend to spontaneously generate dispositional explanations when something bad happens to a character and situational explanations when something good happens. Also, items identified as atypical often contain incongruent emotional reactions.
One possibility is that stories containing information congruent with spontaneously generated attributions or with expected emotions will be judged more realistic. That seems to be true for emotions, i.e., stories with expected emotions are judged more real than stories with unexpected emotions. However, the opposite seems true for attribution. Stories containing information contrary to what is spontaneously generated are judged more realistic than stories containing information congruent with what is spontaneously generated. However, even for emotion, our expectations about emotion vary in complex ways that can influence our perceptions of realism. For example, extreme happiness in an interpersonal situation is more realistic than in a professional situation. It seems likely that research in the near future will find that many social judgments influence judgments about realism.
- Cantor, J. (2001). The media and children’s fears, anxieties, and perceptions of danger. In D. G. Singer & J. L. Singer (eds.), Handbook of children and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 207–221.
- Hall, A. (2003). Reading realism: Audiences’ evaluations of the reality of media texts. Journal of Communication, 53(4), 624–641.
- Potter, W. J. (1988). Perceived reality in television effects research. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 32(1), 23–41.
- Shapiro, M. A., & Chock, T. M. (2003). Psychological processes in perceiving reality. Media Psychology, 5(2), 163–198.
- Shapiro, M. A., & Chock, T. M. (2004). Media dependency and perceived reality of fiction and news. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 48(4), 675–695.
- Shapiro, M. A., & McDonald, D. G. (1992). I’m not a real doctor, but I play one in virtual reality: Implications of virtual reality for judgments about reality. Journal of Communication, 42(4), 94–114.
- Shapiro, M. A., Peña-Herborn, J., & Hancock, J. T. (2006). Realism, imagination, and narrative video games. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 275–289.