Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Multidimensional Characters & Research Constructs

One of my few misgivings as a government researcher tasked with studying the “value and impact” of the arts is that questions of quality are often omitted.

Many of the research findings we amass and present to the public are in the shape of statistics. And why not? We can measure how many (and what types of) people participate in the arts, what is the per capita distribution of artists and arts organizations, and how much the arts add to the gross domestic product. This is valid, generalizable knowledge for the arts sector and for policymakers, educators, journalists, and the wider public. But what can we say about the perceived quality of the artworks or arts experiences behind these statistics? Not much, if anything at all.

Even in well-designed studies rooted in developmental, cognitive, or social psychology, this dimension is fairly absent. We seek to know the “dosage” of the arts program or therapy—how many times a person attended a theater event, for example, or how many hours of arts education a child received—and how this factor correlates with positive outcomes for health and well-being. Or we ask how the deployment of different art forms (music versus drama or the visual arts) affects those outcomes. But we neglect the complexity of idiom or technique, the raw materials, or the themes or subject matter that these artworks engage. So when I learned of a series of psychological studies that Emanuele Castano, David Kidd, and their colleagues at The New School for Social Research had proposed for gauging individual reactions to different types of books and films, I was intrigued.

So, apparently, was a National Endowment for the Arts grants review panel. Castano et al. received an NEA Research: Art Works award in 2016 to support research into how literary fiction and art films compare with popular texts and commercial movies in their ability to influence people’s social perceptions of others.

The researchers do not make a value judgment about the merits of literary versus popular fiction, or between art films and commercial movies. Nor do they contend that these categories are watertight. Rather, Castano and Kidd aim to discover if, when sorted by thematic focus, stylistic traits, and critical or commercial success, books and films in both categories differently affect Theory of Mind (ToM).

The assumption is that literary fiction and art films will prompt readers to report greater empathy and less stereotyping of others than will most bestsellers, and that a similar finding will obtain for artistic versus “commercial” films.

“I come from a tradition of classic social-psychological research on inter-group violence, on morality in the context of inter-group violence, on social identity, on social perception and social cognition—you know, how do we understand the world?” Castano told me recently by phone. “Empathy became very central to my thinking, as a kind of mediating factor, for instance, in inter-group conflict [and] stereotyping.”

Castano says that his interest in empathy was piqued further when he had to write a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (2012). He spent nearly a year reviewing literature on the subject. He also met David Kidd, then a doctoral candidate. The duo found inspiration in team management theory, anthropology, and linguistics, but also in an unlikely source: the novelist and literary critic E.M. Forster.

Forster, in a 1927 series of lectures he later published as Aspects of the Novel, distinguishes between “round” and “flat” characters in works of fiction. Castano and Kidd adapted this concept to understand whether encounters with nuanced (“round”) characters in books and movies can translate into individual- versus category-based perception of other people. As Castano puts it, “do I look at another person as an individual or as a category member?”

Early investigations into these research questions have borne fruit. In 2013, Castano and Kidd published “How Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in Science magazine. More recently, “Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing” appeared in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. The NEA research grant will allow Castano et al. to extend their studies to film as well as to more fiction.

With film, “the stimuli are multidimensional,” Castano acknowledges. “Movies are much more complex,” he adds, referring to music and visuals accompanying the storyline. And yet this attention to multidimensionality, to the richness of content and technique exemplified by specific artworks, should be a standard feature of research attempting to analyze their impact. We know, without needing to be told, that individuals are complex; but so are artistic creations. Multiple survey instruments and assessment tools purport to map our emotions, cognitive abilities, and social skills. Where’s the taxonomy needed to chart a comparable breadth of factors that animate a single work of art?

This post was originally published on the Psychology Today website.

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