Audience and Empathy. Film as a Uniquely Evocative Medium

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2016

19 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents



Literature Review and Project Outline

Is Empathy Enough?
Film-viewing and Relationship



Audience and Empathy: Film as a Uniquely Evocative Medium


An individual’s capacity to not only acknowledge, but rather share and vicariously experience the emotions of another, is a truly remarkable psychological phenomenon. This process of empathy, as it is above defined, is especially intriguing once removed from the context of human interaction, and in fact recognised within the seemingly disconnected dynamic of the fictional film viewing experience. Despite the appearance of what many may consider limitations to empathy in film viewing, such as the audience’s knowledge of the inauthentic, staged nature of the medium, it remains clear that filmic narratives can still be affectively experienced by their viewers. As Metz remarks:

More than the other arts, or in a more unique way, the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present. (1982:45)

Taking this into consideration, this project seeks to scrutinise empathy’s role in the film viewing experience with a focus on emotional response, whilst specifically investigating its impact in the context of fiction film. And so raises the primary research question: To what extent, and how, is fictional film capable of eliciting emotion in its audience?

In recognising the breadth of this topic and the complexity of its key themes, several other questions arise that must inevitably be addressed: how is emotional response measured and its causes identified? What are the barriers to affective response? What impact does subjectivity and individual interpretation have on empathy and the viewer’s reactions to film? What barriers and limitations may exist which could influence the affective response to film? Throughout this project the answers to these questions, and many others, will become pivotal to a reliable response to the overarching research questions.


Both empathy and affect, as concepts, carry with them a degree of ambiguity regarding definition and the criteria by which they are determined or measured. This is of course problematic when considering the research process involved in this project which relies so heavily on the identification of them both. It is therefore crucial that the chosen methodological approaches offer depth and rigour, to the furthest extent possible. In this case, the methodology will include a screening, questionnaires given both before and after the film, and finally a focus group.

The film that was screened, Pay It Forward (Leder, 2000) follows a young boy, Trevor, who is given an assignment by his teacher to put into action an idea that can make a positive impact on the world. Meanwhile, he himself is coping with serious family difficulties including an alcoholic mother and absent father. Though an ultimately uplifting story which reinforces the goodness in people, it tragically ends with Trevor being killed trying to rescue his friend. It is primarily for its emotional appeal that this was chosen. There were six participants who took part in the screening, and because the project does not specifically focus on the impact of gender, age, or any other distinguishing categories, they were chosen at random. The questionnaires they were given before the screening were designed to gauge each participant’s general viewing habits and preference for film genre, as such factors could influence the interpretation of data. After the screening, they were presented with one more questionnaire which asked more specific, quantitative questions regarding the movie they had just watched. However, as Kumar (2005) rightly explains, questionnaires on their own do not provide respondents with the opportunity to clarify the questions asked of them, nor fully elaborate in the answers they give. With this in mind, a focus group was arranged which, in this case, was incredibly beneficial in its capacity to provide a thorough level of detail to each participant’s response to the film, as well as contextualise their questionnaire answers.

Literature Review and Project Outline

Before delving into the outline of this project and its supporting academic basis, it is first beneficial to appreciate the degree of interest this general topic has generated:

Ancient questions as to how and why it is that we can respond emotionally to characters and event which we know to be fictional, and whether it is rational to do so, have in recent years resurfaced and been at the heart of a debate as lively as any in contemporary aesthetics, a debate which continues to fill the pages of philosophical journals but which has so far resulted in little agreement even about the nature of the problems involved, let alone their solutions. (Neill, 1996:175)

Although the notable scope of interest and range of response to this topic can appear intimidating, it is also of benefit to have access to a broad range of perspectives, and from a variety of disciplines. At this early stage, a reflection on the emotive nature of art in general could offer valuable insight into the field and study of most interest in this project; film and audience studies. Swanger’s (1993) description of how art provokes empathy in an individual can be similarly likened to the traits within film that achieve the same effect in a viewer:

Art, intent on the actualization of aesthetic vision, is devoted also to heightening feeling, whether it be feeling for a character in a novel or the feelings occasioned by a string quartet. Additionally, one of the feelings that art engenders is that of empathy; successful art creates a connection between the percipient's sensibility, the sensibility of the artist, and, if the art is representational, figures within it. (Swanger 1993:43)

A further advantage of being involved in a topic so far reaching, is that often one discipline’s specific concern is even approached by another. For example, Stoller (1989) applies an anthropological perspective to the study of affect in film, and so looks at the issue differently. He explains; “[f]ilm can be a powerfully evocative medium, projecting to an audience a narrative which may be infused with sensual sights and sounds” (Stoller 1989:153). This quote highlights the aesthetic and sensory element involved in the affective response, whilst from the film studies perspective, Plantinga (2006) refers more to the content and substance of film:

If our goal is to understand how mainstream viewers experience films, if we want to explore the cultural role of movies, if we wish to expand our conception of the poetics of the cinema, then we cannot ignore the place of emotion elicitation and affective experience within film viewing. (Plantinga 2006:81)

As will become clearer throughout this project, the accessibility to such a diverse range of perspectives can only benefit the cause of the researcher who seeks a holistic understanding of the subject. That is not to say in this case, however, that the discipline of film studies itself does not offer its own wealth of contribution. With regards to the cause of the affective response to film, a process that occupies and drives this project’s core debate, a range of interpretations can be found which fosters a critical and careful approach to generalisations. For example, Friedberg (1990)

emphasises the importance that empathy and identification has in fiction as it “conceals or defers the recognition of dissimilitude” (1990:40). Carroll, however, a key figure to this research investigation, argues against the process of “character-identification” and empathy altogether by claiming that there is often asymmetry between the feelings of an actor and the feelings of the observer. Instead, he advocates the concept of sympathy as a more suitable alternative.

And so, having explored only a fraction of the dense academic field that concerns itself with such topics as those discussed within, it is important to now begin aligning the knowledge this field offers to the key questions of this research project. In doing so, the intention is to define and elucidate the relationship between affect and empathy, in order to understand better the complex dynamics of the film-viewing experience.


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Audience and Empathy. Film as a Uniquely Evocative Medium
Queen's University Belfast  (School of Creative Arts)
Film and Visual Studies
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audience, empathy, film, uniquely, evocative, medium
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Timothy McGlinchey (Author), 2016, Audience and Empathy. Film as a Uniquely Evocative Medium, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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