Friday, January 15, 2010

Of empathy through simulation, sympathy as a passive observer, and living the lives of the others

Cognitive scientists generally agree that our engagement with a fictional character is a major source of our emotional experience while viewing a film. Yet, the nature of such engagement is under a controversy.

According to popular belief, we "identify" with the protagonist of the story. We are angry when injustice is done to the protagonist as if it was done to us. We are saddened when the main character loses his loved one as if we lost our own. Our heart pumps when our hero is chased by a ruthless killer as if our own life is at stake. This seem obvious. Until you really think about it.

Identification can mean many different things. In the psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer's identification with the hero is considered to take the form of an illusion that one is the character in the movie. In more modern theories, identification is often described as mental simulation of another person. According to the simulation theory of philosophy of mind, we simulate other people's mind by going "off-line" from our normal mental lives and adopting the target person's beliefs (i.e. the knowledge and representation of the world), desires, and even at least some aspects of his personality. If the simulation is successful, we end up with the right emotional outcome of the target person in the given situation (correctly imagined, if not actually felt). Many scholars, Oatley, Feagin, Walton, and Currie to name a few, believe that appreciating works of fiction involves simulating characters' actions, goals, plans and emotions in this manner.

However, there are compelling arguments against this view. Noel Carroll (2008) points out that the viewer often has quite a different emotion from the character in the film. When the heroine is sound asleep as the killer approaches her with a dagger, we don't experience her peaceful oblivion but our own fear for her. When we watch Alfred Hitchcock's hero in Vertigo climb the stairs to the top of the bell tower, what we feel is not fear of height but a concern for the man who has such fear. In watching Saving Grace by Sisch, we may feel sadness and admiration for Grace who is separated from her loved ones to complete a mission for saving the humanity, but we don't simulate her love for Dylan. Do we? Dolf Zillman's (1991) example of children shouting to the TV screen, "Watch out," as well as the same internal urge of adult viewers, testify for the gap between the point view of the viewer and that of the character. Therefore, Ed Tan (1996) says we usually experience the events in the film as "passive observers," rather than in the character's shoe. In Carroll's term, sympathy and solidarity, not empathy, are the main source of the viewer emotion. We don't imagine being the characters, but we feel concerns for them as a separate individual, and we feel strong affiliations with them.

This sounds convincing to me. But does this mean identification/simulation does not happen at all while we watch a movie? Amy Coplan (2004) contends that it is possible for us to experience the belief, desire, and emotion of the character while having our own separate belief, desire, and emotion at the same time. In other words, we can have empathy through simulation and sympathy as a passive observer all at the same time, and the fact that we have third-person emotions while watching a movie (as Carroll points out) does not mean we can't have an empathetic engagement with the character. In fact, Gaut contends that sympathy and empathy reinforce each other. The more sadness you feel in empathizing with Grace, the more concern you may feel for her.

At this point, I wish I had some solid empirical evidence on this matter. Unfortunately, I find solid scientific studies on this subject scarce at best. My general feeling is that our emotional experience during film viewing largely consists of sympathy and solidarity (the emotions as passive observers). But aren't there sparks of moments when we actually feel what the character feels as if we were her? Or is this a mere illusion?

Anyway, what does all this mean to machinima makers?

If you believe in empathy through simulation, you may consider enhancing the viewers' empathetic engagement with your character by aiding their simulation process and make it easier for them. This may mean minimizing potential gaps between your viewers and the protagonist in terms of their beliefs, desires, and personalities (so that the viewer's own mental state would not compete too much with those of the character during the simulation process). This would mean creating characters that resemble the viewers as closely as possible, and advancing the story from your protagonist's point of view.

If you believe that third-party emotions dominate the film viewing experience, you may consider experimenting with a variety of things. You may intentionally create gaps between the viewer and the character, and play with it to rouse different sympathy reactions in the viewer, ranging from concern to suspense. A good use of antagonist may facilitate solidarity between the viewer and the protagonist. Characters radically different from the viewers in term of their beliefs, desires, and personalities would not be in the way of evoking sympathy in the audience, as long as they are likeable.

To me these sound like valid strategies for making your story more engaging and appealing, and something to think about as a student of the craft of fiction writing. But in the end, we want works of fiction to do more than simply rousing our sympathetic reactions to a third person or getting us empathetically engaged with somebody just like us. We want books and movies to give us an opportunity to live the lives of the others, letting us experience the world from different perspectives and, perhaps, even with completely different souls. Do they ever succeed, or is it all just an illusion?

Or perhaps giving the viewer an illusion of an empathetic engagement with somebody radically different from himself is what a story-teller should strive to achieve. Creating an illusion of empathy sounds like a good topic for a future blog.

Work cited:

Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of motion pictures (p. 146-191). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Coplan, A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism (62) 2, 141-152.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. Simith (Eds.), Passionate Views: Film, cognition, and emotion (p. 200-216). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zillmann, D (1991). Empathy: affect from bearing witness to the emotion of others. In J. Byrant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

6 comments:

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

It is complex. I think our experiences influence the degree and extent of our sympathising, or empathising with a character. If we have been in a similar situation, or can see similarities we can overlay our own reactions, whether those tie in with the fictional situation or not..we have a tendency not to notice those differences when our own reactions are overwhelming. I am interested in those filmmakers who allow for ambiguity in the reactions of the audience, leaving enough space for the viewers to engage in a variety of ways. I have heard the view expressed, that a story, or environment which is too tightly defined will exclude most of the audience.-Kate

Armanus said...

I don't know that empirical data can ever truly exist, since the results are as varied as the individuals you would study to get them.
It think each person has their own manner of reaction. I would take Coplan's theory as the best example of the median, since it is the combination of the two different views. Each person would likely fall to one side or the other of this spectrum in varying degrees, based off of many factors, such as imagination, empathic sensitivity, temperment, beliefs, etc.
I doubt you would ever be able to say "This is how people react and why", but if you took a group and surveyed how they reacted and why, the average would end up to be close to Coplan's theory.
I don't think trying to define this will help a director too much, and as Kate said, trying to define it too tightly inevitable makes the experience more exclusive.
The real trick is does the character seem sympathetic to you, the director? Likable isn't really necessary....film is full of characters that aren't likable but sympathetic. The anti-hero, the grumpy old man who hates everyone, etc.
Creating a character that resonates with you will inevitably hit a mark with the audience. It may not feel exactly the same to them as it does you, and maybe not in the same way, but we all are similar, and that's the best you can do :)

Old Folkie said...

I have to agree with what Armanus said.
While I do think that a lot of the points brought up are true for the identification process we find in literature, I doubt that we can translate that as easily to the (more passive, but not necessarily less engaging) viewing experience.

In the end both must happen to a degree, that we do identify (more) closely with the lead (or the sidekick, the leads friend or however … and also with the antagonist, or he won’t really work) but that we also obviously keep a mental separation intact (indeed, wouldn’t everything else mean we talk schizophrenia?) and never can completely lose the awareness that we are only observers, a point which I believe Hitchcock made the observation about is essential to the creation of suspense, by making use of our innate inability to affect what happens and sometimes practically turning us into accomplices of the antagonist – but that’s a different discussion.

Or not entirely, I guess. Crime movies, the Giallo tradition most notably, make frequent use of the subjective camera to place us in the shoes of the killer (or with Fulci we may even assume the point of view of the weapon), but we do not exactly identify with the killer in that moment, do not share his feelings, nor are we supposed to.
And that’s an important point in moviemaking, or rather in storytelling per se; it’s not necessarily about putting us in a position where we experience what the character feels (or a approximation of it) but to manipulate our emotions, sometimes even by enhancing our feeling of revulsion when forcing us to take on a unwanted role.

And now I’ve really gone off-topic … I better leave here. *hah*

Chat Noir Studios said...

Kate (Fosk) Said:

"If we have been in a similar situation, or can see similarities we can overlay our own reactions, whether those tie in with the fictional situation or not.. we have a tendency not to notice those differences when our own reactions are overwhelming."

I absolutely agree. I think filmmakers can make use of viewers' mis-attribution of the source of their emotion to create the illusion of empathy. (A related topic will be covered in a future blog.)

Kate (Fosk) Said:
"I have heard the view expressed, that a story, or environment which is too tightly defined will exclude most of the audience."

Personally, I generally agree with this view. On the other hand, I frequently come across a slightly different view, that good writing reveals the universal within the specific. I respect this second view and certainly recognizes works of fiction that accomplish this. However, my personal approach is definitely to work within the perimeter of the general and the universal.

Old Folkie said:

"While I do think that a lot of the points brought up are true for the identification process we find in literature, I doubt that we can translate that as easily to the (more passive, but not necessarily less engaging) viewing experience."

That's exactly my point. My question/finishing thought was that perhaps creating the illusion of true empathy might be something a film maker want to strive to accomplish.

Old Folkie said:

"And that’s an important point in moviemaking, or rather in storytelling per se; it’s not necessarily about putting us in a position where we experience what the character feels (or a approximation of it) but to manipulate our emotions, sometimes even by enhancing our feeling of revulsion when forcing us to take on a unwanted role."

That's a good point. On the other hand, I was under the influence of Susan Feagin's suggestion that arts teach us about ourselves by letting us imagine and construct specific mental experiences (which I think involves empathy more than anything else) and identify patterns in them. Through such experiences, we enlarge our "affective and cognitive repertoire" and become mentally flexible, according to her. Coplan also commented empathy involves a deeper involvement of the character that other types of emotional reaction to film (Coplan).

But let me confess one thing. I don't think I aspire to induce identification/empathy with my stories. What I aspire to do then? Well, t's complicated...

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Gnasche said...

Reading some of your older posts...

From a simpler point-of-view, I'd say that the audience likes to think "what would I do in that situation", which is why conflict is so important. Even when the character acts in a way that is different, the audience is still intrigued because, "lets see if this option is better".

However, when your character does something outside the realm of acceptability, the viewer thinks "this is stupid" because they have no interest in how the chosen option plays out.

There's a second way that audiences can be entertained by a character, though. It's not by putting themselves in the situation, but by watching the character's thought process during the situation. This is most common in a farce. What are the Three Stooges going to do? What's Gilligan going to do? Even..what's House going to do? Their thought process is the pleasure because it's a perspective we aren't ready for. The show has to established this rule early.

Most successful comedies seem to have a mixture of both. Most dramas just rely on the first. I think I stick to comedies because pushing conflict feels so unnatural to me, even though I know it's the right thing to do. I'm much more comfortable dangling shiny jokes around.