Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Empathy and the Movies

Women looking for a movie date and filmmakers looking to increase box-office receipts both know that many men have little interest in melodramatic tearjerkers. New research, however, suggests that producers of emotional films can increase their male audience by emphasizing the films’ disconnection from reality.

“We found that when guys are told a story is fictitious, they really like it,”said Jennifer Argo, an associate marketing professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of a study (with Rui Zhu and Darren W. Dahl of the University of British Columbia) that will appear in The Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers found that a person’s level of empathy is actually the determining factor. To test empathy levels and the subjects’ reactions to various melodramas, the researchers turned to several classic short stories, like “The Last Leaf” by O. Henry, that include struggles against adversity and melancholy plot twists.

During testing, however, the subjects were told that the stories were scripts of pilots for a coming television series. Some subjects were told that the fake scripts were based on a true story while others were advised that the tale was complete fiction.

People with low empathy (mostly men) who believed the stories to be fantasies liked them much better than those who were told the stories were factual. The reverse held true for people with high empathy, who were mostly women.

Professor Argo speculates that men feel released from gender constraints on showing emotion when dealing with fiction or fantasy (which may also explain why men cry when Spock dies in “The Wrath of Khan”).

Film studios, she added, may also want to consider the influence of fact and fantasy on viewers when planning promotional campaigns. That way, at least, “you might not have husbands groaning through the whole thing,” she said.

Another surprising observation from the study: not one of the 492 students tested reported having read or heard any of the stories, even though some are quite prominent. “I was appalled,” Professor Argo said.

New York Times by IAN AUSTEN, published: November 26, 2007

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