Effects of Foregrounding on Readers’ Affective Reactions: A Study on Negative Empathy

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Carmen Bonasera, PhD @CarmenBonasera

:classical_building: Affiliation: University of Bologna, Italy

Title: Effects of foregrounding on moral disengagement and negative empathy

Abstract (long version below): This proposal builds on prior theoretical and empirical investigations on negative empathy to explore the effects of foregrounding on affective responses during reading. The study proposes a survey-based analysis of readers’ responses to original and manipulated excerpts of Nabokov’s Lolita and Littell’s The Kindly Ones , which feature unreliable immoral narrators. The hypothesis is that readers who are offered the original versions—possessing a high level of semantic, phonetic, and grammatical foregrounding—experience higher levels of empathic engagement with the main character than those who read the version without foregrounding, thus showing how style may contribute to the arousal of negative empathy.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Over the last few years, the topic of negative empathy has been increasingly debated within theoretical research on narrative engagement with fictional characters. In connection to literary studies, negative empathy is intended as a sophisticated form of empathy with characters that are portrayed as remarkably evil and seductive at the same time. These characters are conceived and crafted with the aim of eliciting a complex, ambivalent, and potentially cathartic aesthetic experience. Throughout the narrative, such experience is capable of inviting readers to oscillate between emotional identification and moral detachment (Ercolino 2018). Although it was formulated at the beginning of the 20th century by German psychologist and philosopher Theodor Lipps (Lipps 1909), the notion has only recently come to the fore within the array of perspectives that constitute the general framework of narrative empathy (Keen 2007), in line with a renewed interest in the figure of the perpetrator (McGlothlin 2016). Negative empathy has also been reappraised in recent theoretical discussions in the fields of aesthetics, literature, and visual studies (Ercolino and Fusillo 2022), which have shown that the multifaceted aspects of aesthetic reception can result in forms of engagement that stretch the boundaries of what is normally understood as “empathy”.

While acknowledging the difficulty of analyzing such a complex and ambivalent experience from a quantitative perspective, empirical studies have tested the potential of perpetrator narratives to arouse negative empathy. For instance, de Jonge et al. (2022) concluded that presenting these narratives as either fictional or non-fictional texts (i.e., autobiographies) impacts the readers’ moral disengagement, which indirectly contributes to the readers’ empathic reactions. Nevertheless, negative empathy has scarcely been investigated from stylistic perspectives, as empirical studies have rarely delved into the dynamics of textual construction and their direct effects on the readers’ emotional responses (Bonasera, forth. 2023). On the contrary, empirical research in narratives of loss and grief, where empathy can reasonably be elicited in a more straightforward way, found a correlation between high levels of textual foregrounding and increased empathic understanding, concluding that literariness may be partly responsible for empathic reactions (Koopman 2016). In addition, foregrounding has been widely scrutinized in manipulation studies relating to readers’ affective responses (Miall and Kuiken 1994; Hakemulder 2004; Kuzmičová et al. 2017), and thus it seems particularly suitable for an investigation in the possible arousal of readerly (negative) empathy.

Therefore, this study builds on both theoretical and empirical research on negative empathy and other affective responses in order to test whether literariness, fostered by foregrounding, influences the readers’ empathic engagement with twisted characters. More specifically, this study proposes a survey-based analysis of readers’ responses to selected excerpts from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1991 [1955]) and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2010 [2006]), which notably feature unreliable immoral narrators that are often believed to be estranging readers rather than captivating them. These two novels were chosen based on theoretical studies (Ercolino and Fusillo 2022) which have deemed them capable of arousing negative empathy, due to the perceived immorality of the protagonists. The questionnaire was devised and delivered online through the Qualtrics survey platform. The first section entails assessing the participants’ empathic disposition with two scales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis 1983). Participants are then randomly assigned to read versions of four selected excerpts from Lolita and The Kindly Ones , two for each novel. Excerpts were chosen based on prior computational investigations (Bonasera, forth. 2023) which have deployed Sentiment Analysis and emotion extraction techniques in R (R Core Team 2023) in order to locate sharp fluctuations in the emotional content of the texts, which might have a connection with the distressing affective oscillation that is at the core of negative empathy, since the textual representation of emotions may influence empathic arousal (Fernandez-Quintanilla 2018: 137). The versions of the chosen excerpts differ in the level of foregrounded textual features: the original texts possess a high level of semantic, phonetic and grammatical foregrounding, which is instead systematically reduced in the manipulated versions. The experiment employs and adapts validated measures for different dimensions of empathy—i.e., affective, cognitive, and associative empathy—as developed by Shen (2010), as well as scales regarding empathic distress and perceived textual foregrounding and aesthetic attractiveness, as developed by Koopman (2016). The underlying hypothesis is that readers who are offered original versions of the novels are able to experience higher levels of empathic engagement and empathic distress toward immoral characters than those who read manipulated versions of the same excerpts without foregrounding. Consequently, this study is conceived as a further tile to actively enrich the gamut of textual features associated with the arousal of negative empathy.


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