That this happens while we read novels and watch movies sounds reasonable enough. Recognizing potential similarities between our own experience and the character's can be one of the paths to finding truth about the human condition in fiction. On the other hand, I feel the role and prevalence of identification in reader/viewer experience is often overestimated. Identification is often accepted, even assumed, as the driving force for reader/viewer emotion by many academics, writing teachers, and laymen alike.
However, there are some compelling arguments against identification as the major source of reader/viewer emotion. Here are a few arguments by Carroll (2008) and Zillman (1994):
- There often are disparities between what the character is supposed be feeling and what the reader/viewer is feeling. Scenes of suspense offer prime examples. It is often the case that the reader/viewer feels the tension as he observes the sneaking danger to the character, who is completely oblivious to the fact.
- The reader/viewer's emotion and character's emotion often have different causes and objects. For example, we're typically not in love with Romeo or Juliet, even when the general romantic feeling is evoked through the poetry.
- Even the subjective camera, which is often presumed to be the source of most basic form of identification, does not appear to be very effective in promoting identification. For example, Sapolsky (1979) reported that first-person POV shots of sexual scenes (which should theoretically induce identification with the person who is engaged in the sexual act) induces less physical arousal than the same scene shot from a third-person POV.
Therefore, Noel Carroll (2008) proposes that what I and calling empathic identification in this blog can happen but does not happen not very often. He contends that sympathy (concerns for a third person), not identification, is "the major emotive cement between audiences and the pertinent movie characters." Such sympathy may be supplemented by solidarity as well as automatic processes such as mirror reflexes according to him. Similarly, Ed Tan (1997) has argued that the viewer's emotional experience is largely that of a passive observer. Keith Oatley (Oatley, 1994;Oatley & Gholamain, 1997), a great proponent of simulation view of fiction, lists a variety of processes , including but not limited to identification, that may contribute to the reader/viewer experience. They are: identification, sympathy, activation of autobiographical memory, reactions to aesthetic object, and reactions to the discourse (rather than the narrative) of the fictional work.
Note that the last three processes in Oately and Gholamain's list are not even character-oriented processes. My own suspicion is that such non-character-oriented processes contribute to enhancing the experience of character-oriented emotions, and even to creating illusions of them without the reader/viewer's conscious awareness. This point will be explored further in a future blog post.
Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Oatley, K. (1994). A taxonomy of the emotions of literary response and a theory of identification in fictional narrative. Poetics, 23, 53-74.
Oatley, K., & Gholamain, M. (1997). Emotions and identification: Connections between readers and fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the arts (pp. 163–281). New York: Oxford University Press.
Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zillman, D. (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33-51.