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Published by: lawrenceregina1 on May 14, 2009
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Arthur A. Raney
Expanding Disposition Theory:Reconsidering Character Liking,Moral Evaluations, and Enjoyment
In an attempt to expand the scope of the disposition theory of drama and tofurther explore the enjoyment of media entertainment, this article reexamineshow viewers form and maintain strong feelings toward media characters. Tothat end, schema-theory literature is employed to offer possible alternative pro-cesses by which these bonds are first formed. Secondly, the article investigatesthe ways that viewers seek to perpetuate and defend those strong feelings forthe sake of enjoyment. Several attitude and perception theories are examined tofurther inform our understanding of enjoyment. Finally, the article considersthe potential implications on the disposition theory of drama and on our under-standing of media enjoyment in general.
to enjoy watching films and television. No doubt, as mediaconsumers, we want to get a lot more out of these media experiences aswell: accurate weather reports, thoughtful analysis of current affairs, asnapshot of our (and others’) culture, to see just how much of our ward-robe is out of style, and on and on. Nonetheless, simply put: We oftenwant to enjoy—and to enjoy thoroughly at that—what we are watch-ing. Who can blame us? The ritual of television and film viewing in-volves a tremendous investment of time, attention, and mental and emo-tional energy, often to the neglect of other, more pressing matters likelaundry, exercise, and scholarly writing. Consequently, we desire a guar-anteed return on our investment; we want to think and feel that ourenergy has been well spent. So, we seek out media products we thinkwill help us reach this ultimate goal of enjoyment. The purpose of thispaper is to further examine enjoyment and the steps that we as viewersoften take to help ensure that we will experience it.The exact nature of enjoyment has yet to be fully determined. Mostscholars agree that the concept, at least as it is used in relation to mediaentertainment, has not been fully explicated. Regardless, most of us knowenjoyment when we see it, or better yet, when we feel it. For our pur-poses, media enjoyment can be conceptualized as the sense of pleasure
CommunicationTheoryFourteen:FourNovember2004Pages348–369Copyright © 2004 International Communication Association
Expanding Disposition Theory349
that one derives from consuming media products. From past experi-ences, we tend to know which types of media fare are most likely togenerate those feelings of pleasure. So, when we are in need (or in want)of enjoyment, we tend to know where to turn. Several perspectives fromentertainment studies describe and explore this practice: selective expo-sure (e.g., Klapper, 1960; Sweeny & Gruber, 1984; Vidmar & Rokeach,1974), uses and gratifications (e.g., Johnson, 1995; Perse, 1986; Turow,1974; Vincent & Basil, 1997), and mood management (e.g., Biswas, Riffe,& Zillmann, 1994; Christ & Medoff, 1984; Knobloch & Zillmann, 2002).Although a theory that can ultimately predict whether an individualwill like or dislike a particular program, film, narrative, or characterdoes not exist, disposition-based theories of media enjoyment can serveas useful guides in understanding how and why people enjoy these things.Disposition-based theories (for a comprehensive summary, see Raney,2003) contend that enjoyment of media content is a function of a viewer’saffective disposition toward characters and the story line outcomes as-sociated with those characters. The theories predict that enjoyment in-creases when highly liked characters experience positive outcomes, whenhighly disliked characters experience negative outcomes, or both. Con-versely, enjoyment decreases when beloved characters encounter misfor-tune or when hated characters meet with success. More about the theo-ries is provided below, but at this point it is enough to note the ultimateimportance of character liking to the enjoyment process.With this in mind, this article will first explore how, and perhaps why,viewers form strong feelings toward characters in the first place. To thatend, I will briefly examine how, according to disposition theories, view-ers form affiliations with characters, and I will offer possible alternativeor additional ways that these bonds are formed. Second, I will investi-gate the ways that viewers seek to perpetuate and defend those strongfeelings for the sake of enjoyment. In doing so, I will examine how sev-eral attitude and perception theories might inform our understanding of enjoyment. Finally, I will discuss potential implications of disposition-based theories on our understanding of media enjoyment in general andon our lives in the nonfiction world.
Loving and Hating Characters: Keys to Enjoyment
The first disposition-based theory—the disposition theory of humor—was developed by Zillmann and Cantor (1972) to describe how listenersor readers come to appreciate jokes that involve the disparagement of aparticular person or group. The principles of the disposition theory of humor were applied subsequently to the appreciation of drama and sports,yielding the disposition theory of mirth or drama (Zillmann & Cantor,
1976) and the disposition theory of sports spectatorship (Zillmann,Bryant, & Sapolsky, 1989), respectively. Entertainment scholars haveapplied the key concepts of the theories to examine the enjoyment of fright-inducing entertainment (Hoffner & Cantor, 1991a; Oliver, 1993),action films (King, 2000), reality-based programming (Oliver, 1996),crime-based fiction (Raney & Bryant, 2002), and news programming(Zillmann, Taylor, & Lewis, 1998). Differences between these mediacontents dictate subtle differences in the application of the theories,thereby rendering efforts to develop a more general disposition theoryof media content somewhat problematic. For that reason, the followingdiscussion may be more applicable to certain genres than others. Thisdiscussion will primarily focus on the broadly defined genre of drama;therefore, the use of the term
disposition theory
throughout is used inrelation to the enjoyment of dramatic entertainment.As noted above, the disposition theory of drama posits that enjoy-ment of media content is a function of a viewer’s affective dispositiontoward characters and the outcomes experienced by those characters inthe unfolding narrative. Simply stated, the theory predicts that enjoy-ment increases when liked characters experience positive outcomes orwhen disliked characters experience negative ones. Conversely, enjoy-ment suffers when liked characters experience negative outcomes and/ordisliked characters experience positive ones. Support for the dispositiontheory of drama—closely associated with the disposition theory of mirth(Zillmann & Cantor, 1976) and the moral sanction theory of delightand repugnance (Zillmann, 2000)—is abundant (Hoffner & Cantor,1991a; Oliver, 1993, 1996; Raney, in press, 2002; Raney & Bryant,2002; Zillmann & Bryant, 1975; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977).According to the theory, the feelings that viewers hold toward thecharacters portrayed are of utmost importance to enjoyment. Disposi-tion theory contends that viewers form alliances with characters in dramaon a continuum of affect from extremely positive through indifferenceto extremely negative. Because these alliances have been most often con-ceptualized as emotional reactions, the affiliations formed toward me-dia characters have typically been described as
affective dispositions
.More simply stated, as drama viewers, we like and cheer for certaincharacters, while despising and rooting against others. However, oursocial nature requires that the selection of favored and unfavored char-acters not be capricious; our emotional side-taking must be morally jus-tified. To do so, it has been proposed that viewers act as “untiring moralmonitors” who continually render verdicts about the rightness or wrong-ness of a character’s actions (Zillmann, 2000). Thus, disposition theorycontends that when viewing a drama, we come to like characters whoseactions and motivations we judge as proper or morally correct while we

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