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Affective disposition theory (ADT) explains the process by which we enjoy different entertainment narratives. The theory conceptualizes media enjoyment – primarily thought of in hedonic terms – as the product of a viewer’s emotional affiliations (i.e., affective dispositions) with characters and the outcomes experienced by those characters in the narrative.
ADT contends that we form dispositions toward media characters in much the same way we do with people in the real world. First, we tend to like those whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves, with those perceptions being filtered through a moral lens. Thus, moral considerations govern the valence of the dispositions we form, with characters whose actions and motivations are judged to be morally correct liked more. Second, the intensity of those dispositions vary on a continuum from extremely positive through indifference to extremely negative, and may fluctuate as the narrative unfolds. Third, affective dispositions trigger empathy-based reactions toward things experienced by characters. As a result, with beloved protagonists, we hope for their success and fear for their failure; with hated villains, we desire the opposite. Finally, if the outcomes wished for by viewers are depicted in the narrative, then enjoyment increases in proportion to the strength of the affective dispositions held. If those hoped-for outcomes are not portrayed, then enjoyment suffers in proportion to the strength of the dispositions.
Despite subtle operational variations, the basic ADT formula has been demonstrated as stable across various genres, including humor, drama, frightening fare, reality TV, sports, and digital games. Current ADT research further explores these cross-genre differences, as well as issues related to viewer and character morality, discrete emotional reactions toward characters, how expectations impact enjoyment, and non-hedonic/meaningful media experiences.
- Raney, A. A. (2004). Expanding disposition theory: Reconsidering character liking, moral evaluations, and Communication Theory, 14(4), 348–369.
- Zillmann, D. (2000). Basal morality in drama appreciation. In I. Bondebjerg (ed.), Moving images, culture, and the Luton: University of Luton Press, pp. 53–63.
- Zillmann, D. & Cantor, J. (1976). A disposition theory of humor and in T. Chapman & H. Foot (eds.), Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and application. London: Wiley, pp. 93–115.