Audio-visual Narratives and Empathy

Audiovisual narratives have a powerful impact on how people perceive the world and behave towards others. A key mental process that channels this impact on audiences is empathy, defined as the understanding and experiencing of mental states of an observed other person. Stories are driven by mediated characters’ emotions, goals and motivations, thus, empathizing with characters supports the understanding of stories. Evoking empathy is effective in eliciting audiences’ prosocial (helping) behaviour, the occurrence of which is fundamental for a well-functioning human society. Despite the importance of empathy in narrative processing, it is still unclear how the components of audiovisual narratives influence viewers’ responses. Previous research into empathy focused only on the impact of fictionality, narrativity, and content but neglected the importance of formal features. Due to this gap fundamental parts of the media reception process remain undertheorized. The present project is an interdisciplinary collaboration among scholars in communication, psychology and computer science to identify those formal features in audiovisual fictional narratives that are capable of predicting viewers’ empathy and prosocial behaviour with high accuracy. Findings generate new knowledge about the validity of a theoretical model on the interaction of formal and content features in media processing and effect. Based on this result it will also be possible to design and produce audiovisual messages that have a high impact on audiences’ empathy and prosocial behavior more effectively in the future.

Funding source:

Project team:
Katalin Balint, Tess Lankhuisen, Elly Konijn, Anne Bartsch (Universität Leipzig), Sergio Benini (Università degli Studi di Brescia)