Screenwriting, Empathy,
and Multi-cultural Ethics

©2018 Patrick Cattrysse[1]


This paper deals with the question of how empathy relates to multi-cultural ethics, and how answers to this question may be relevant to screenwriting studies. The study of empathy in media studies fits into the wider study field of audience involvement. There are a gazillion reasons why people continue or stop reading, watching, or playing, but many studies have focused on the role of empathy.[2] The word 'empathy' has been used in various ways, even though it generally refers to a relation with people rather than with things.[3] This may explain why many studies of empathy focus on character liking or disliking. I hereafter suggest to understand 'empathy' as an attitude, rather than a specific emotion (see, e.g., Pinker 2011; Raney 2011; McStay 2018), whereby the empathizer hopes good things will happen to the empathee, and fears bad things might happen to her or him. Oftentimes, this correlates with the empathizer hoping bad things will happen to the antagonist of the empathee and fears that good things happen to her or him (Raney 2011). Once again, there are many reasons why people empathize with other people, and at this point, it may be relevant to distinguish between screenwriting studies and film, TV or media studies. People may empathize with a character because the actor or actress is good looking and they may continue watching because of the great scenery or wonderful music. However, casting, photography and music are not part of the screenwriter's toolkit. Therefore, a study that aims to be useful to the screenwriter must limit its scope to the tools and working areas that pertain to screenwriting. This still leaves plenty of space for motivators to trigger empathy. However cognitive psychological studies have given much attention to the role of morals (see, e.g., Zillmann and Cantor 1972; Zillmann and Bryant 1975; Raney 2002; 2011). Morals or ethics, which I hereafter use as synonyms, are best known as a prescriptive set of values, referring to how one should think, feel and behave. Contrary to this prescriptive study of values, a descriptive study of moral values has evolved since the 1990s, which moral psychologists have labelled 'naturalized' morals (see Sinnott-Armstrong 2008; Flanagan, Sarkissian, and Wong 2008). The general hypothesis remains that concordance between the ethics conveyed by a text and the ethics shared by the real audience enhances audience empathy, and that empathy enhances audience involvement. Conversely, it is assumed that discordance between textual and audience's ethics inhibits empathy and therefore audience involvement. Needless to say, concordance and discordance are to be understood as gradient, and scholars have suggested analytical tools to describe, if only in an approximate way, degrees of empathy. I refer to John Fiske (1992) recycling Stuart Hall's (1980) distinction between preferred or dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings, and Patrick Cattrysse's (2010) redefined distinction between a character's want and need, where 'want' refers to what a character wants, whether consciously or unconsciously, and whether expressed as an 'internal' or 'external' goal, and 'need' refers to what an audience would like the character to do or want. Narratives may thus present stories where what a character wants coincides with what an audience would like it to want or do, ‑ that is often the case in one-dimensional hero stories ‑, but narratives may also present characters that strive for goals an audience does not (entirely) approve of. In that case, the audience's reading may turn to what Fiske (1992) has called a negotiated reading: the audience discards as it were the textual values it disapproves of in order to continue enjoying the values it does agree with.

Naturalized morals

A study of naturalized morals aims to describe and explain empirically observed patterns of moral judgments, emotions and actions as evidence of actual and desired values within and among individuals (Flanagan, Sarkissian, and Wong 2008). It represents a research field that involves multiple disciplines including social neuroscience, social psychology, evolutionary biology, and behavioural economics.

There are many accounts on the concept of 'morality'. A descriptive approach defines morality as what people think or feel is moral. Morality generally refers to sociality, i.e. un-selfishness, altruism, and pro-social behaviour. Consequently, selfishness as an end-goal is generally considered to be immoral. Scholars also agree that morality is part nature (innate), part nurture, i.e. learned behaviour. This opens the door to study moral universals (e.g. the urge for fairness among primates and other mammals) in relation with more local cultural implementations. It is seen as part intuitive and part reflexive (see, e.g., Haidt 2001; Greene 2013). In the former case, it refers to fast and often unconscious processes, like when we have a gut feeling that something is wrong or right, but are unable to explain why. In the latter case, it refers to slower and conscious processes. Finally, it is also understood that morality is not always consistent. One recalls the trolley paradox, and the common clash between utilitarian ethics and categorical imperative ethics. The experience of conflicting urges is a very common one: should I have another smoke? Eat one more chocolate? Should I cross the street as a pedestrian if the light is red but there are no cars in sight? This inconsistency suggests that like evolution, naturalized morality results in part from continuous patch work rather than from intelligent design.

Implications for the study of empathy

These findings entail significant implications with respect to the study of empathy and its relation to multi-cultural ethics. Firstly, different texts may convey different morals, and therefore require different audiences adhering to different morals in order to obtain a preferred or negotiated reading (section 2.1). Secondly, if studies on empathy tend to focus on character (dis)liking, narratologists generally adopt a wider view, involving multiple narrative agents including real makers, implied makers, narrator(s), narratee(s), implied audience(s) and real audience(s). Adopting this wider view allows for a more refined study of empathy that may play (or not) at multiple levels (section 2.2). Thirdly, empathy is not the only player in this game. Hence a study of empathy needs to start looking also at some competitors in the field of audience involvement (section 2.3).

Different texts, different audiences, different morals

Adopting the naturalized morals perspective shows not only that different texts convey different morals, but also that different audiences may empathize with the same narratives for different (moral) reasons. In other words, given the fact that empathy depends on morals, and that people's moral compasses change across cultures (if not intra- and interpersonally), a study of empathy needs to diversify its search for empathic motives. Critics, if they did not do so before, now really need to drop the false consensus bias and the regime of the fictive 'We'. 'The' reader or 'the' viewer does not exist, and 'we', the critic, cannot longer assume that the totality of our readership interprets texts the way 'we' do. Put more simply, so-called 'good' characters, 'bad' characters, or even 'morally ambiguous' characters need to be redefined in terms of 'good', 'bad' or 'morally ambiguous' to whom? One may recall John Fiske's (1992) anecdote about the New York homeless people, fleeing from the cold into a church, starting to watch Die Hard (1988), and rooting for the robbers, and not for Bruce Willis or the police. Each time, a police car got trashed, they were cheering, and when the one-dimensional hero and the police regained the upper hand, the homeless people turned off the video. They were no longer interested. For them, the 'good' guys were the bad guys, and vice versa. Consequently, adopting the naturalized morals perspective implies reworking some common concepts. I briefly discuss two: the anti-hero and the bad fan.


The term 'anti-hero' is a common enough term, yet it is used in different ways. As a consequence, it refers to a heterogeneous set of characters and character features. Is the anti-hero someone who behaves in a heroic way; that is someone who shows courage, idealism and self-sacrifice, often at the service of the family, but who on the other hand lacks some conventional moral qualities, say like Michael Don Corleone? Or is it rather a protagonist whose behaviour is not necessarily immoral, but lacks the aforementioned heroic features, say like many main characters in Woody Allen films? If we adopt the naturalized morals perspective instead of the assumption that there is only one book of morals that is valid for all and always, categorizations become even more muddled. I have asked my students for many years what they thought about Dr House or Jack Bauer. Most if not all considered them as heroes, not anti-heroes…

The 'bad' fan

In her study of The Anti-hero in American Television, Vaage (2016) borrows the term 'bad fan' from Emily Nussbaum, a blogster from The New Yorker.[4] The term points to the viewer who considers the anti-hero as a hero. According to Vaage, the bad fan does not understand what the author calls 'reality checks'. Vaage defines reality checks as punctual authorial interventions that are meant to recalibrate the viewer's moral compass and put it back on the 'right track'. I use the quotation marks because the definition adopts the prescriptive conceptualization of ethics, which assumes that there exists only one universal set of moral rules. Examples of reality checks can be found in the series Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, when characters such as Skyler White or Dr. Jennifer Melfi tell the protagonists that their behaviour is immoral. The 'understanding' viewers or 'good fans' take their cue from these reality checks to become aware that they are empathizing with immoral behaviour. If one adopts the naturalized morals perspective, the so-called bad fan may very well understand these reality checks as authorial cautionary signs, but disagree with them because they carry a different moral compass. Following up on Nussbaum's notion, Gary Holmes discusses 'Bad fan' effects on watching Mad Men, and 'men behaving badly, or were they?' The question tag hints at viewers who might disagree with this moral assessment and points to the heavy cultural load of the words 'macho' and 'machismo'. Compare for example what both men and women admire or despise as machismo in the North and the South of Europe, or in the West and in the East of the globe, and the signifiers 'macho' and 'machismo' are likely to represent very different sets of values and patterns of behaviour. And Holmes continues:

The Bad Fan experience becomes especially problematic in cases of male-on-female violence, like the rapes on 'Game of Thrones,' when some viewers might get off on it instead of recognizing it as horrifying


The underlining is mine: Holmes' cautioning against viewers 'getting off' on rapes and violence in Game of Thrones refers once more to different viewers adhering to different moral values, and the relevance of adopting a naturalized morals perspective. It refers at the same time to an emerging field of study that has been called 'virtuous violence' studies (A. P. Fiske and Rai 2015).

Virtuous violence

Violence is indeed often seen as the antithesis of sociality, the expression of our animal nature. However, Fiske and Rai argue that most violence serves a moral purpose, and there is an increasing number of scholars gathering evidence to support that claim (see also Raney 2002; Krebs 2011).[5] According to these researchers, most cases of mass killing, rape, torture and terrorism are performed in the service of a higher moral good (Pinker 2015, xv). Once again, morality is defined in terms of sociality, i.e. as serving self-other relationships. In other words, violence that only serves the self is considered immoral. Consequently, perpetrators of violent acts typically feel that this is the right and necessary way to act. On the basis of these findings, Fiske and Rai have developed what they call a Relational Models Theory (RMT). On this account, morality concerns the locally-culturally implemented realization of models for self-other relationships that are considered to be ideal. These findings corroborate the intuitive assumption that morals are culturally relative, i.e. that what one culture judges to be right, another culture may consider to be wrong. Bringing this back to screenwriting studies, this suggests that a study of virtuous violence in terms of naturalized morals could enhance a study of culturally diversified empathy. Moreover, following the hypothesis advanced in affective disposition theory (Zillmann and Cantor 1972), a culturally diversified morality concept could enhance the prediction of culturally diversified audience empathy.

Fiske and Rai's RMT model offers tools that could be of interest to an intercultural study of screenwriting and storytelling in general. A full study of the concepts extends beyond the limits of this essay, but I hereafter briefly describe the four fundamental motives, which, based on empirical evidence, underlie most moral judgment, emotions and behaviour: Communal sharing (CS), Authority ranking (AR), Equality matching (EM) and Market pricing (MP). The CS model concerns Us-Them or in-group - out-group formations, where the members of an in-group are motivated to care for and support the integrity of the in-group 'through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate' (A. P. Fiske and Rai 2015, 18).[6] As typical examples, the authors mention families, teams, brotherhoods, military units, nationalities, ethnicities, and some close friendships. The AR model is used to rank members of a social group in a linear order. The EM model refers to reciprocity: tit for tat; you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Typical examples are turn taking, in-kind reciprocity, even distributions, and randomization procedures such as coin flipping (A. P. Fiske and Rai 2015, 20). Finally, the MP model refers to proportionality. For each party, rewards or punishments must be proportional to their costs, contributions, effort, merit or guilt (A. P. Fiske and Rai 2015, 21).

Fiske and Rai's motivational models recall some traditional concepts like 'cultural dimension' that are used in intercultural communication studies and value theory (see Hofstede 1980; Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 1998; Schwartz 2012). The relevance of the latter for an intercultural study of screenwriting and storytelling has been discussed already elsewhere (Cattrysse 2016; 2017). The CS model recalls the collectivist-individualist divide and adds a cultural code to Peter Dunbar's (1992) number of 150 average personal contacts and Peter Singer's (1981) notion of 'expanding circles'. The AR model recalls the power distance index (PDI), although Fiske and Page are reluctant to conflate their concept with the PDI. Conversely, the EM model refers to the Darwinian drive of reciprocal altruism, even though its local implementations are also culturally diversified. Finally, the MP model adds a cultural pattern of behaviour, which to my knowledge has no equivalent in the aforementioned intercultural communication and value studies, but concurs with the universal urge of fairness, shared by both human and non-human primates as well as various other mammals (de Waal 2009).

The narratological approach and levels of empathy

While many psychological studies focus on character (dis)liking, narrative studies usually adopt a wider perspective, and distinguish between the real author(s), the implied author(s), the narrator(s), the narratee(s), the implied audience(s) and the real audience(s). Following this, Phelan (2005, 23) distinguishes four levels of ethical interaction:

1. that of the characters within the story world
2. that of the narrator in relation to the telling, the told, and the audience
3. that of the implied author in relation to the telling, the told, and the authorial audience
4. that of the flesh-and-blood reader in relation to the set of values, beliefs, and [ethical] locations operating in situations 1–3.

Consequently, if empathy depends on the correspondence between the represented and one's own values, Phelan's levels of ethical interaction allow us to raise the question at what level(s) empathy emerges (or not). Following this, one may study the distinction between 'direct' and 'indirect' reading or watching in a more detailed way. 'Direct' reading occurs when one interprets the narrative as an example of good practice one should imitate. Typically direct watching takes place when the viewer agrees and identifies with a character's (often the main character's) behaviour. It occurs for example when my students consider Dr. House to be a hero. Conversely, 'indirect' reading or watching takes place when the audience interprets the narrative as a cautionary tale, i.e. as an argument, which proves a contrario that it sets an example one should avoid rather than imitate. Hence 'indirect' reading requires viewers to put one step back mentally, and to disconnect their empathic relation with the (main) character to reconnect it with the narrator, and/or the (implied) authors. Indirect watching generally occurs when viewers consider Dr House or Francis Underwood (in House of Cards) to be anti-heroes, and disagree with their ways of thinking, feeling and acting, yet agree with assumed narratorial and/or authorial intentions regarding the representation of an undesirable (dystopian?) world. Needless to say, if one adopts the naturalized morals perspective, my 'direct' reading may be your 'indirect' reading and vice versa. Since any moral assessment involves the moral compass of the beholder, the qualification 'direct' or 'indirect' needs to account for the subject that does the assessment. Still when confronted with a choice, multi-billion industries and state-run censorship put their money on direct reading, and perhaps this should not surprise. Direct reading is based on imitation, and imitation is known to be the oldest way of learning. After millions of years, imitation has been hard-wired into our brain, which is why it occurs semi-automatically and partly unconsciously.[7] Hence, when reading the Production Code Administration and the stipulations of the Hays Office for example in the US, they assume viewers will imitate 'bad' behaviour and aim to stop that. When the weapon industry markets its newest weaponry in the game industry, they assume that gamers will at least know of, if not buy and use these weapons. When the US army makes recruits play violent games to desensitize them to violence, they build their logic on direct reading, and assume imitative rather than critically distancing effects. A similar bias appears in Brandon Smith's 2015 criticism, when he writes about popular media and their 'false and fictional moral dilemmas designed to promote the rationalization of an 'ends justify the means' narrative ', where anti-heroes 'have little to no moral code fighting antagonists', because a moral compass has become a luxury one cannot afford if one is to survive.[8] The debate about whether the media influence real life behaviour or rather reflect it is as old as the media themselves. Still with time, researchers have built some hindsight, which did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, decades of scientific research confirms correlations between the exposure of screen violence and violence-related events in viewers' and gamers' later lives (see, e.g., Zacks 2015). Debates about explanation and causation often confuse (for rhetorical purposes) proximal and distal causes with other structural correlations. Yet take this as a case for proximal causation: when the umpteenth episode of the Fast and Furious franchise was shown in Hasselt (a Flemish town), the police planted extra cameras around the cinema, and unsurprisingly registered a significant increase of speed tickets that evening. One may assume that the imitative behaviour of 'direct' reading is triggered by the faster and stronger signalling limbic system, while the critically distancing effect of 'indirect' reading involves the slower and weaker signalling frontal cortex. In common parlance, we would call the former our visceral reaction and the latter our thought through reaction. This concurs with how an emotional dog wags its rational tail (Haidt 2001).

What about audience involvement and moral discordance?

The above argued a string of arguments:

1) empathy plays a major role in audience involvement
2) concordance between text and audience values enhances empathy
3) empathy targets people rather than things
4) therefore until now, most studies have focused on audience involvement in terms of character liking or disliking.

This section raises the question about text types where audience involvement seems to occur in spite of moral discordance between the audience and character behaviour. Once more a thorough discussion of this subject transcends the limit of one essay. I therefore start the debate by introducing three phenomena: prank culture, Schadenfreue and hate-reading or watching. These are well-known phenomena. Plenty of critics have written about them. However, the question of how such phenomena relate to storytelling and empathy remains underinvestigated.

1. Prank culture

The word 'prank' generally refers to a trick that is played on someone, and which is meant to be funny. Definitions differ with respect to the question of whether the joke may cause harm or not. Well-known prank TV shows are Candid Camera, Impractical Jokers, Jackass, and Benidorm Bastards. Typically, the purpose of representing a prank is to shock and to test the limits of the permissible and 'good taste'. In a blog dated 3 May, 2018, Kady Ruth Ashcraft asks: 'What Happened to Prank TV'. The blogster argues that prank TV has all but disappeared, and concludes that prank culture has moved to the YouTube channel.[9] Searching YouTube for the word 'prank' yields about 33.300.000 results, with the most popular ones registering over 110 million views. Hence prank culture is not a marginal media phenomenon. The question that emerges here is: How does empathy relate to prank culture?

In order to start this debate, I briefly evoke one illustrative case. In December 2017, one YouTube star called Logan Paul posted a video showing a dead body he stumbled upon in Japan's notorious 'suicide forest.' The video drew a massive storm of criticism, and after two days of apologizing, Paul, not YouTube, took the video off-line. As Aja Romano discusses in her blog dated January 3rd, 2018,[10] the debate went about pranks turning toxic "when stepping beyond the entertaining levels of discomfort [sic]", and the limitations and lawlessness of YouTube's prank culture. However, the relevant question to ask with respect to the workings of empathy is: What about the 550.000 to 600.000 'likes' Paul scored before he took his video off-line? Romano suggests that

Ultimately, prank shows prey primarily on our desire to see people get bullied or tricked—a particularly unpalatable sensation in a volatile moment where our president is both bully and trickster (ibid.).

The quote restates rather than answers the question. However, the more than half a million likes corroborate the common sense intuition that different people share different tastes and different morals (see section 2.1).

2. Schadenfreue

People enjoying pranks present an interesting paradox to screenwriters and storytellers more in general. It is widely accepted that people tend to root for the underdog. Victimization is an ancient storytelling technique screenwriters use to enhance audience empathy with a morally ambiguous character. However, in prank culture, people identify with the prankster and laugh with the often innocent pranked. Enjoying pranks thus resembles 'Schadenfreue'. Schadenfreue occurs when someone takes pleasure when someone else suffers pain or harm. As such, it is the opposite of empathy, which, as indicated above, involves an empathizer who wishes the best for the empathee. However, typically, Schadenfreue is part of a larger natural process that starts with a transgression, which breaks an equilibrium and is felt as unfair. The transgression is followed by punishment, often applied and felt as retributional revenge. Punishment-experienced-as-revenge restores the equilibrium and is felt as fairness. It therefore produces pleasure. As indicated above, cognitive scholars have pointed out that when spectators empathize with one character, they may experience Schadenfreue vis-à-vis their opponents, when bad things happen to them. The whole Schadenfreue mechanism explains the large number of revenge-stories including their massive success.

However, if enjoying pranks resembles Schadenfreue, with pranks, there is no transgression and there is no punishment. Pranks typically apply to innocent victims who are generally perfect strangers to the spectators. In this respect, it resembles perhaps more hate-watching or hate-reading.

3. Hate-watching/reading

Hate-reading/watching occurs when someone enjoys reading about or watching someone else behave in what the beholder considers to be a disdainful or ridiculous way. Prototypical examples are Jersey Shore and its multinational spin-offs, and Science of the Stupid, which started in 2014 with top gear co-presenter Richard Hammond.[11] Hate-reading or watching thus resembles pranking in more than one respect. One could argue that a show like Science of the Stupid presents pranks that are applied (unwittingly?) to the Self. Both pranks and hate-reading are opposed to empathy in that audience involvement relies on discordance rather than concordance between the characters' and the audience's (moral) values. Also, both prevent the beholder from empathizing with an innocent and unknown victim. If anything, alignment and allegiance go to the (often anonymous) narrator, and the implied or real author who, like the prankster, distance themselves from the pranked by publicly exposing their victim as well as their ridicule. Hence, if there is empathy involved, it plays at another level: not that of the character but rather the levels of the narrator(s) and the (implied and real) authors. Unlike natural Schadenfreue, the negative feelings of disdain and the joy when bad things happen to the victim are not caused by transgression, and do not involve retributional punishment or revenge.

On the other hand, pranks may differ from hate-reading in that the latter depend on humour, while humour is not necessary to the former.

Finally, one should consider the possibility that not all viewers watch shows like Jersey Shore in terms of 'hate-watching'. In that case, the wording may reveal a condescending bias that is similar to the term 'bad fan'.

In the meantime, hate-reading, like prank culture, has moved from traditional media such as TV, to the social media online. In a blog on 'The Art of Hate-Reading', Katie J.M. Baker admits to hate-reading when visiting a website, a Twitter feed, or Facebook page.[12] Hence, to enjoy 'ridiculous' or 'disdainful' behaviour no longer needs stage directors. Internauts can pick on fellow internauts and unbeknownst to the latter love to hate them.

4. Why watch/read without empathy?

The question of why some people enjoy pranking and hate-reading, like that of empathy, requires further investigation. It joins the wider, more recent research question of why some of us enjoy experiences that are felt and labelled as negative, such as fear or horror (see, e.g., Bantinaki 2012). Needless to say, pranksters and tricksters go back to ancient mythology with trickster-gods such as Edshu, Maui, Raven, and Othin (Campbell 1993, 414). Aristotle points out that to laugh with 'characters of a lower type' represents a core feature of classical comedy (Aristotle 1997, 9). Well-known tricksters and morally flawed characters also appear in the fifteenth and sixteenth century with characters like Till Eulenspiegel, the picaresque novel and the carnivalesque tradition (cf. La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes; 1554). When discussing morally flawed characters, one cannot omit François Rabelais' Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534).[13] When writing these novels, Holquist (1984, xvi) argues, Rabelais behaved just like that other 'prankster', François Villon.

However, the trickster-character, like the anti-hero, represents a mixed bag of characters and character features. Tricksters are generally male and do not belong to the upper class. They can be cunning and outwit their superiors in a clever and funny way, but they can also behave foolishly and be punished for it. Whereas the first uses humour and resembles the Bugs Bunnies or the Rémi Gaillards of today, the second can do without humour and comes closer to what is currently called hate-reading. Both types however represent somehow boundary-crossers (Hyde 1998, 7): they disobey rules and go against conventional behaviour. This raises the next question: Whose rules and whose conventions?

The study of why people enjoy pranks or hate-watching has also built a tradition. At an individual level, one common explanation holds that to gloat on lesser people helps inflate one's weakened self-esteem.[14] To see how unlucky the other is may trigger the idea that one is not so unlucky after all. This concurs with the psychological finding that on average people see themselves in terms of how others see them,[15] even though paradoxically humans tend to assess themselves as slightly better than they really are (Kahneman 2011, 199ff.). It also corresponds with the inversed phenomenon of uplifted profiles on Facebook causing visitors to envy their friends and feel depressed (Appel, Gerlach, and Crusius 2016).

At the collective level, the notion of 'boundary-crosser' suggests reading trickster stories as expressions of social discontent. Writing in the Soviet 1930s on The Social Role of Laughter, Anatoly Lunacharsky interprets carnival and the burlesque as a kind of de-stressing, 'a safety valve for passions the common people might otherwise direct to [violent?; pc] revolution' (quoted in Holquist 1984, xviii). If fighting oppressive hegemony (Beek 2017, 270) produces stress, research in the field of neuro-endocrinology shows that prolonged and severe stress biases human and other primates to selfishness and decreases empathy. One may assume this to be supported by the 'inequity aversion' (de Waal 2013, 27), another universal urge among primates. Another commonly observed side-effect of prolonged stress is displaced aggression. Displaced aggression occurs when unable to take one's anger on the person who caused that anger, one re-directs the violent reaction towards someone or something else that is defenceless, even if it did not cause that anger. Humans excel at stress-induced displacement aggression (Sapolsky 2017, 132). Could pranks and hate-watching be seen as variants of such behaviour?

What these findings have in common is that they all deal with relationships. That is why I expect that Fiske and Rai's RMT could help answer the question of why some people enjoy pranks and hate-watching. RMT encompasses all of the factors mentioned above. As indicated above, morality is about sociality and managing relationships. Sociality generally involves hierarchies and the unequal distribution of power. Experiments in game theory, such as the Ultimatum game or the Dictator game (which are about the cultural implementation of the universal urge of fairness), and studies of the power distance index in intercultural communication studies show that while the principle of hierarchy, aka the unequal distribution of power, is universal, its local implementation is culturally patterned. So are the tensions that emerge from that structure. In other words, the social acceptance of a higher or lower power distance between the haves and the have nots differs from one culture to another, and changes over time. In this respect, it is relevant to note that, while pranking and hate-reading may represent two different practices, they both refer to a top-down reading, that is a reading that occurs from a superior position 'looking down' upon an inferior position. In that case, one could interpret enjoying pranks and hate-watching as a result from the 'in-group out-group bias'. This bias points to a pattern of favouring one's in-group members over out-group members. As such, it concurs with Fiske and Rai's CS model. Following this, prejudice and aversion are biological responses to anything foreign (Dobelli 2013, 236–38). Identifying with a group has been a survival strategy for hundreds of thousands of years. Hence while empathy may be seen as in-group oriented, pranking and hate-reading may be seen as out-group oriented. While moral concordance installs and maintains relations with an in-group, moral discordance installs or maintains relations with an out-group, even though reinforcing out-group boundaries may at once reinforce in-group cohesion. As affective disposition theory already pointed out (cf. Zillmann and Cantor 1972; Raney 2011), the more the out-group is dehumanized, the more members from the in-group are likely to enjoy it when bad things happen to members of the out-group (Harris and Fiske 2006; Gazzaniga 2011, 204). For example, in her study of The Anti-hero in American Television, Vaage (2016, xi) focuses on what is somewhat snobbishly called 'Quality TV' or 'High-End TV'. The prototypical 'quality TV' viewer would be the HBO viewer, i.e. 'the affluent, highly educated, [white?; pc] urban viewer' (Vaage 2016, xii). I can imagine the average HBO viewer indulging in top-down hate-watching shows like Jersey Shore or Science of the Stupid, but what about those viewers who approve of the characters in Jersey Shore, and think they are great? Instead of hate-reading, they are empathizing.


One essay cannot fully discuss empathy and its competitors in the field of inter- and cross-cultural audience involvement. However, it would seem that this type of research has only begun. As indicated above, morals play an important role in empathy, but mechanisms like moral bracketing or moral inversion suggest that audience involvement entails more than morals and empathy. For example, moral bracketing occurs when the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived relies predominantly on fascination. Fascination, aka sensationalism, typically overrides ethics. Common examples are car accidents or other disasters such as earth quakes, tsunamis or erupting volcanoes, which attract the masses like a light box attracts rabbits in the night. This type of attraction bypasses any notion of morality. Moral inversion, as the name indicates, points to a change of moral allegiance. One typical example appears in Marnie (1964) when Marnie steals the money from her boss's safe, and is almost caught in the act. Asking myself and my students over many years, each time we hope that she will succeed in stealing the money and not get caught… A similar, although slightly different scene that illustrates this moral inversion appears in yet another Hitchcock movie, Psycho (1960), when Norman Bates attempts to push Marion's car with her dead body in the swamp, and the car almost fails to sink. Once again, many viewers are caught empathizing with the culprit rather than with the innocent victim. As I said, the scene is slightly different from Marnie's stealing scene because at that time, we think Norman's mother killed Marion, and Norman is now covering up for his mother. However, this still makes 'us' empathize with an accomplice to murder… These and other cases suggest that moral allegiance with a character represents a complex and dynamic process, that there is more than morals involved to obtain empathy, and that there is more than empathy to trigger audience involvement, even if we restrict our view to that of the screenwriter.

Hopefully the above convinces the reader that in this respect, screenwriting studies does not have to reinvent the wheel. There is already plenty of evidence and expertise available in various disciplines, such as social psychology, behavioural economics, social neuro-science, but also evolutionary ethics and intercultural communication. This expertise can be applied to benefit the study of empathy and other mechanisms enhancing or inhibiting audience involvement in media texts across the globe. Needless to say, to assert that different people enjoy different texts for different reasons is to state the obvious. However, the framework of naturalized morals allows the scholar to adopt a more descriptive, as opposed to a more normative perspective. Moreover, it enables us to study empathy and other modes of audience involvement in a more diversified way. Following Fiske and Rai's RMT, one key word appears to be 'relationship'. People treat each other and react to each other differently depending on the qualitative nature of the relationship that binds them (Pinker 2015, xvi). Variation does not mean randomness. Patterned variations may emerge at infra-individual as well as individual and trans-individual levels. In addition, one may ascribe them to nature and evolution as well as to socio-culturally learned ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. This RMT model seems at once refined and complex enough, but also related to and in accordance with other findings in other disciplines, to provide a highly sophisticated tool that could enhance the writing as well as the study of inter- and cross-cultural stories and various types of audience involvement.


[1] This paper represents a lecture that was presented at the 12th SRN Conference that took place in September 2018 at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan.

[2] For an introduction into the field, see, e.g., Coplan and Goldie (2011).

[3] Anthropomorphized objects like speaking tea pots may be seen as the classical exceptions, or not?

[4] See; visited on 02-10-2018. The bad fan enjoying narratives for the (morally) wrong (?) reasons is an old figure. See, e.g. Milton's Paradise Lost, where readers found the clever-but-evil Satan more compelling than God.

[5] When publishing their book in 2015, Fiske and Rai counted over 275 researchers having used a great variety of methods to study the validity of RMT. See

[6] These findings are corroborated in studies in social psychology and behavioral economics (see, e.g., Dobelli 2013 below), and social neuro-science (see, e.g., Sapolsky 2017, 133; 135).

[7] For example, computers programmed with artificial intelligence software are capable of registering our unconscious micro-expressions mimicking expressions of characters on the screen.

[8] See; visited on 04-10-2018.

[9] See; visited on 04-10-2018.

[10] See; visited on 04-10-2018.

[11] For more examples on hate-watching, see, e.g., Emily Nussbaum on 'Hate-Watching 'Smash'', online:; or Darren Franich writing about 'The Rise of Hate-Watching', online:; visited both on 10-10-2018.

[12] See; visited on 05-10-2018.

[13] On a discussion of Rabelais in relation to Lazarillo and the picaresque tradition, see, e.g., Yovanovich (1999, 55).

[14] See Katie J.M. Baker's blog on hate-reading mentioned above.

[15] Needless to say, Facebook and other social media offer 'super-stimuli' (cf. Nico Tinbergen) to trigger this natural reflex.


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