Make Belief: Examining the Interaction of Reason and Emotion in Film Communication

Date of Completion

January 2011


Speech Communication|Mass Communications|Cinema




Since the inception of the medium, the study of film has predominantly been a study of communication (Stifano, 2009). With the many symbolic and sensory messages associated with the cinema, a plethora of questions arise concerning how creators (directors, actors, and editors) interact with audiences, and how these interactions specifically impact reception of films and other educational and behavioral outcomes arising from the medium. With scant prior empirical measures for studying the sender-receiver relationship in film communication, the developmental-interactionist theory (Buck, 1984; Buck & VanLear, 2002; Stifano, 2009) posits two simultaneous dimensions that shape viewer attitudes: Comprehension (symbolic understanding arising from reason) and Empathy (emotional communication arising from biologically-shared signal systems. Where prior research has evidenced a central role of emotional communication in shaping attitudes (e.g. Stifano, 2009; Stifano, 2010c), the present dissertation puts forth four quantitative studies examining how such emotional communication interacts with rational thought in cinema. In conducting this research, a complete full-length narrative independent feature film (Belief) was conceptualized, produced, and screened as a measure for examining the entire communication process. Results suggest: That emotional communication among content creators improves creative experiences; that creators utilizing more affective processing tend to better appraise their work; that across an entire film, both symbolic and emotional communication with creators helps to improve evaluations of the film; that audiences utilize emotional communication as a basis for identification with anti-hero characters, and for judging their transgressions less harshly; and that audience attention patterns can largely replicate the traditional three-act dramatic structure, complete with attention firmly rooted in seminal moments within the narrative. These results are discussed in detail as a potential window towards a better analysis of film as a medium of interaction, and moreover, a new approach towards media effects research that investigates traditional outcome variables through the lens of a true (though mediated) sender-receiver interaction. ^