Stories have been shaping worldviews, beliefs and attitudes throughout human history. Current theories explaining the persuasive power of narratives accord a central role to the tendency of listeners, readers and viewers to identify with story characters. Much research has shown that this tendency leads to a host of powerful psychological effects from the expansion of one’s worldview, to empathic experiencing of the emotions of others, from decreased reactance through increased efficacy and vulnerability, to modeling of attitudes and behaviors. But what determines identification with characters? What makes identification with some characters intense and with others mild? What makes us identify with one character more than wit another within the same story? This talk will focus on this less researched topic: the determinants of identifying with narrative characters. After a brief summary of the state of the science of narrative persuasion and identification, I will describe several studies that have examined factors believed to determine identification. These studies focused on the role of character virtue and audience-character similarity. The results of these studies demonstrate that there are basic misconceptions regarding identification as a psychological phenomenon and that this is a more complex phenomenon than previously thought. These insights have implications that address the central questions in mass communication research about audience response and the relative power of text and audience.
Jonathan Cohen (Ph.D., University of Southern California, 1995) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication, University of Haifa, Israel. His research and teaching focus on narrative persuasion, Identification with media characters, parasocial relationship and perceptions of media influence. His recent publications on these topics have appeared such journals as the Journal of Communication, Media Psychology and Communication Research, among others.