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The therapeutic effects of narrative cinema through clarification: Reexamining catharsis

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Abstract

Media psychologists have found no empirical support for catharsis as emotional venting or purgation. However, the concept persists in the humanities and everyday use, particularly in beliefs about the presumed effects of catharsis on well-being. This study adjusts the conceptualization of catharsis to include a cognitive aspect, i.e., the clarification of emotion, and examines the health outcomes of the combination of exposure to drama and drama-induced self-reflection. An experiment (N = 152) was conducted to compare the therapeutic effects of cinematic and reading-based dramas. In a mediation analysis, improvements in general health and lowered levels of depression were found for cinematic drama exposure with self-reflection, compared to reading-based drama exposure with self-reflection; this relationship was mediated by identification and emotional self-efficacy. Our results provide preliminary evidence for the therapeutic benefits of cinematic human drama through an altered conception of catharsis. Implications for using media to facilitate emotional fitness and meaningful entertainment are discussed.
... In addition, the fundamental need for relatedness was threatened in approximately a quarter of the categorized descriptions of struggling. This was often the loss of a loved one, such as a spouse in the animation film Up or a child in the film Mystic River (Khoo & Oliver, 2013). Other threats to relatedness needs include problematic relations between family members, such as between parents and children in the television show Supernanny (Tsay-Vogel & Krakowiak, 2016). ...
... Each participant saw 1 video. Shortened versions of In the Bedroom and Mystic River as in Khoo and Oliver (2013). Both stimuli share the theme of loss from death of a teenage child and the parents' despair. ...
... Next to portrayals of virtue, approximately a quarter of the categorized descriptions included portrayals of non-virtuous behavior as well. This ranged from minor offenses like stealing a jacket in the film Red Jacket , through larger transgressions like falsely accusing someone of rape in the film Atonement (Knobloch-Westerwick et al., 2013) to major crimes like killing an innocent man in the film Mystic River (Khoo & Oliver, 2013). This means that portrayals of virtue are not the only characteristic of eudaimonic entertainment that is used in research, as non-virtuous portrayals are also regularly present. ...
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The present review examines whether commonalities and differences can be detected in the content of eudaimonic entertainment. We focused on two features: the fundamental human needs that were threatened, and the specific virtues that were portrayed. The results showed that the examined materials often included a combination of portrayals of threats to the fundamental human needs for safety, health and relatedness, and portrayals of the virtue of humanity, like love and kindness. Two subcategories could be distinguished in the materials, one in which the focus is on the portrayal of virtue as an answer to threatened needs, and one in which the focus is on the portrayal of threatened needs in which characters struggle even though they also have virtue.
... There is a growing body of research on the positive effects of media (see Reinecke and Oliver, 2016;Raney et al., 2020) and narratives (e.g., Khoo et al., 2021) specifically. Previous studies show that exposure to narratives can activate skills and processes relevant to the successful navigation of interpersonal relationships, such as social cognition processes (Mumper and Gerrig, 2017;Rooney and Bálint, 2018), empathy (Mar et al., 2006), self-reflection (Khoo and Oliver, 2013), or prosocial behavior (Igartua and Barrios, 2012). However, to the best of our knowledge, self-disclosure has not yet been investigated specifically. ...
... Surprisingly, the control group showed a higher level of self-disclosure behavior post exposure, as well as in the 1 week follow-up. Taken together with the earlier finding that higher frequency of close-ups was associated with lower self-disclosure, the finding can be interpreted from the perspective of catharsis theory of aesthetic experiences (Khoo and Oliver, 2013). In this way, perhaps during narrative exposure emotions are elicited but only partly processed leaving less need for self-disclosure. ...
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Eudaimonic media entertainment has been shown to promote mental health, however, our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms that drive the effect is still limited. This project focuses on self-disclosure, a relevant factor for reducing distress and improving mental wellbeing. The aim was to test whether empathizing with a fictional character and the personal relevance of a story can facilitate self-disclosure responses, as well as to examine the role of social cues and audio-visual formal features. In Study 1, 227 participants were randomly assigned to watch one of 8 videos of individuals sharing their experiences of burnout. Shot scale and social cues were manipulated in the videos. Empathy with the characters but not personal relevance predicted the desire for self-disclosure. In Study 2, participants were randomly assigned to either a control condition ( N = 78) or one of six manipulated short films ( N = 436). Movies were manipulated for shot scale and music. Participants' reports on state empathy with the film character, perceived personal relevance of the story, and measures related to self-disclosure were collected. One week later, participants were invited to a second survey on self-disclosure behavior ( n = 390). Both personal relevance and empathy with character showed strong links to self-disclosure responses. The findings of this project shed light on how self-disclosure is elicited by narratives. These insights are important to further understand the therapeutic effects of narratives.
... Furthermore, absorption in a book has been argued to provide escape (Green, et al., 2004), enhance empathic abilities (Kidd and Castano, 2013), provide catharsis for people who experienced trauma ( Khoo and Oliver, 2013;Koopman, 2015Koopman, , 2013, offer a better understanding of self and other (Kuiken, et al., 2012;Kuiken and Douglas, 2017), and facilitate identification with characters that are going through similar experiences, say of heartache or other problems, providing readers with the very comforting notion that they are not alone in their pain . ...
... Some scholars suggest that the only positive consequence of absorption is that it potentially provides a person with temporary relief from daily worries (i.e., escapism) (Green, et al., 2004). Others argue, however, much like Beardsley, that an absorbing experience with art can offer a better understanding of self and other (Kuiken, et al., 2012;Kuiken and Douglas, 2017), a meaningful experience in and of itself Bartsch, 2011, 2010), and even catharsis ( Khoo and Oliver, 2013;Koopman, 2015Koopman, , 2013). ...
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This contribution reviews both theoretical and empirical research on the effects of absorbed reading and bibliotherapy on subjective psychological well-being, paying special attention to the possible influence of digitization on this relationship. Reading on tablets, for example, could prove counter-productive for obtaining a state of absorption and thus modern-day tablet-readers may miss out on potential health benefits that absorbed reading of literature might provide. On the other hand, the connection that tablets provide to online reader communities and thus online bibliotherapeutic resources, might prove even more beneficial than obtaining a state of absorption during reading. Full article available here: https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9429/7597
... Entertainment media scholars have studied self-efficacy as the belief in one's ability to endure certain media content (e.g. horror self-efficacy, Lin et al., 2018), self-efficacy to regulate emotions in entertainment media contexts (Khoo & Oliver, 2013), and self-efficacy to perform sexrelated behaviours in response to sexual portrayals in the media (Moyer-Gusé et al., 2011;Wright, 2011). ...
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Efficacy constructs play central roles in health, political, computer-mediated, environmental, and mass communication research. In this review, we sought to organize and evaluate the efficacy concepts that have accumulated in media effects scholarship. First, we characterize how media effects researchers have studied efficacy constructs, both as perceptions and as message features. We discuss key conceptual and methodological issues for each efficacy construct. Second, we offer a conceptual matrix that puts prominent efficacy constructs in conversation with one another. We conclude with recommendations for media scholars studying efficacy. Ultimately, our review underscores the need for greater clarity and consistency in the study of efficacy as a predictor, outcome, mechanism, and moderator of media use and exposure.
... Additionally, eudaimonic entertainment content is typically characterized by high levels of cognitive and emotional challenge (Bartsch and Hartmann, 2017) and the ability to trigger reflective thoughts (Clayton et al., 2019). When used as an ego-reference and applied to the viewer's own situation (Schramm and Wirth, 2010), this should invite media users to engage in and practice meaning making during and after exposure (Khoo and Oliver, 2013). Over time, repeated exposure to such forms of eudaimonic entertainment that provide opportunities for the vicarious experience of meaning or for active engagement in meaning making may result in increased presence of meaning in life for media users. ...
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Narratives and media entertainment are central sources of meaningful experiences in everyday life and provide role models and learning opportunities for coping with adversity and life challenges. Though a growing body of research demonstrates beneficial short-term effects of entertainment use on recovery and stress coping, a test of longitudinal effects on positive adaptation to adversity is largely missing. The present study aims at providing a salutogenic perspective on the mental health effects of entertainment use by addressing the longitudinal relationship between hedonic and eudaimonic entertainment preferences (i.e., the individual entertainment diet) and three indicators of psychological resilience: hope, meaning in life, and trait resilience. Pre-registered hypotheses and research questions were tested based on data from a longitudinal panel study with two waves over a 6-month time period and N = 2,561 participants from Germany. The findings demonstrate that only meaning in life at T2 was significantly albeit weakly predicted by eudaimonic entertainment preferences at T1, providing limited support for prospective effects of entertainment use on resilience. In contrast, the data demonstrate selective exposure effects of hope and trait resilience at T1 on eudaimonic and hedonic entertainment preferences at T2. All three resilience indicators were significant predictors of mental health and psychological wellbeing. We discuss implications of our findings for future research on salutary mental health effects of narratives and media entertainment.
... Twenty-first century scholarship has taken up this idea, with Glavin & Montgomery (2017) hypothesising that fictional worlds make anxiety inducing experiences salient while removing their threatening immediacy, thereby allowing them to be processed in a safe way. Similar ideas are also advanced for fiction by Troscianko [17] and Koopman [84]; Khoo & Oliver [85] make equivalent claims for cinema. Moving on to the functional advantages of representations of others' experiences, Pinker [86] argues for the view that fiction may have evolved to allow for the offline processing of challenging scenarios. ...
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Does reading fiction improve mental health and well-being? We present the results of five studies that evaluated the impact of five forms of exposure to fiction. These included the effects of recalling reading fiction, of being prescribed fiction, of discussing fiction relative to non-fiction, and of discussing literary fiction relative to best-seller fiction. The first three studies directly recruited participants; the final two relied on scraped social media data from Reddit and Twitter. Results show that fiction can have a positive impact on measures of mood and emotion, but that a process of mnemonic or cognitive consolidation is required first: exposure to fiction does not, on its own, have an immediate impact on well-being.
... Importantly, however, most mainstream research on the topic currently attributes the benefits of writing to its ability to grant emotional clarification (i.e., the ability to navigate one's emotional complexities and label individual feelings) and mitigate psychophysiological stress (Pennebaker, 2014). Indeed, researchers have explicitly noted that there does not seem to be sound evidence for a cathartic process as classically defined (Khoo & Oliver, 2013;Pennebaker, 2018). It is also important to note that it is not yet clear whether expressive writing, typically employed to manage acute psychological traumas or stressors (Frisina, Borod, & Lepore, 2004;Smyth & Helm, 2003), is effective for mitigating depressive affect or suicidal ideation (Rude & Haner, 2018). ...
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Background: To help shed light on the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death of the famed macabre and mystery writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, we explored the potential role of depression in the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe via his written language. Method: Using computerized language analysis, we analyzed works from Poe’s corpora of personal letters (N = 309), poems (N = 49), and short stories (N = 63), and investigated whether a pattern of linguistic cues consistent with depression and suicidal cognition were discernible throughout the writer’s life, particularly in his final years. Building on past work, language scores were collapsed into a composite depression metric for each text. Data from each work type was subsequently compiled and graphed into a single plot by year, with scores exceeding the 95th percentile (p <.05) considered statistically significant and treated as potential depressive episodes. Results: Significant, consistent patterns of depression were not found and do not support suicide as a cause of death. However, linguistic evidence was found suggesting the presence of several potential depressive episodes over the course of Poe’s life – these episodes were the most pronounced during years of Poe’s greatest success, as well as those following the death of his late wife. Limitations: Given the sampling method, it is not possible to establish direct causality; results should be considered informed but tentative. Conclusion: This investigation demonstrates the utility of language analysis for capturing disruptive/maladaptive emotional responses to life events.
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Humans avoid thinking about death, yet they often watch tragic movies in which the main characters die. Seeking to explain this paradox, this research assessed conditions that motivate narrative processing of tragic movies about the loss of a loved one. Participants were assigned to a 3 (Mortality Salience of Self vs. Loved One vs. Control) × 2 (Movie Ending: Meaningful vs. Open) factorial design ( N = 187), and then completed measures of death-thought accessibility, mixed affect, boundary expansion, and identification. The two different mortality salience conditions increased death-thought accessibility in the same way. However, only mortality salience of a loved one increased mixed affect for movies with meaningful endings, which, in turn, predicted identification with the protagonist and boundary expansion into the story world. The findings suggest that movies about loss with meaningful endings may invite viewers to emotionally process the fundamental fear of losing a loved one.
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This essay uses grounded theory to analyze interviews with a dozen people who media marathoned while going through a health struggle. Three prominent relationship-focused themes emerged from the analysis: (1) Interviewees experienced “parasocial encouragement,” drawing inspiration from characters’ perseverance; (2) interviewees often marathoned stories recommended by family or friends, which led to conversations about the stories; and (3) interviewees struggling with depression or anxiety were able to learn more about human relationships through media and to use media engagement experiences as springboards for communication. In sum, through the cultivation of social support and social capital, media marathoning experiences helped study participants buildup and draw from a meaningful social reservoir in their time of enhanced need for connection. The social reservoir metaphor captures media marathoning’s embeddedness in a rich social environment of real and fictive others, with relationships that can both precede and live on beyond the media engagement experience.
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