Speaker: Taleen Nalabandian @tnalaban
Affiliation: Texas Tech University (Department of Psychological Sciences, Lubbock, Texas) and Receptiviti (https://www.receptiviti.com)
Title: Narrative Preferences of Depressed Individuals: A Moderated Serial Mediation Model
Abstract (long version below): Previous studies suggest that depressed individuals enjoy dark narrative genres. However, research examining underlying mechanisms revolving around narrative preferences and depression remains limited. To provide insight on the types of narratives depressed individuals gravitate toward and why, we asked participants to read and answer questions about a narrative portraying a depressed or non-depressed protagonist. Coinciding with negative attentional biases of depression, results showed that depressed participants identified more with and developed a stronger parasocial bond with a depressed (rather than a non-depressed) protagonist, leading to more positive narrative ratings. Our findings yield clinical implications for creative bibliotherapy interventions for depression.
With increasing narrative consumption in today’s society, more researchers are studying how narratives relate to individuals’ cognitive, behavioral, and emotional states and traits. In particular, a growing body of work demonstrates that narratives can further inform the characteristics of depression, a leading source of distress and dysfunction worldwide (World Health Organization, 2021). For example, consistent with their tendency to focus on negative rather than positive or neutral information (i.e., negative attentional bias; Beevers, 2005), those higher on depression prefer narrative genres that depict negative content, such as tragedy (Till et al., 2014) and horror (Infortuna et al., 2021). However, research on specific narrative elements (i.e., type of protagonist) as well as underlying processes (i.e., character identification and parasocial bond)—that may illuminate why depressed individuals gravitate toward one narrative over another—remains limited.
The current study aims to better understand the narrative preferences of depressed individuals by investigating the nature of protagonists and the social psychological effects they generate in audiences. Previous research suggests that identifying with protagonists (i.e., understanding a fictional character’s perspective; Cohen, 2001) and forming parasocial bonds with them (i.e., a one-sided bond between the narrative reader or viewer and the fictional character; Tukachinsky et al., 2020) facilitates greater narrative enjoyment (Green, 2021). Accordingly, depressed individuals may procure greater enjoyment from narratives depicting similarly depressed characters, with whom they can more easily understand and develop a consequent bond. Therefore, we test the hypothesis that those higher on depression will more likely positively rate narratives about a depressed protagonist, as explained by their stronger identification and parasocial bond with said protagonist.
To examine the narrative preferences of depressed individuals, we first randomly assigned participants to read a short story about a depressed protagonist or a non-depressed protagonist. These short stories were taken from chapters of Ned Vizzini’s (2006) “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a novel about a young man experiencing depression and suicidal ideation. Participants ( N = 539; gender: 46.6% women, 52.1% men, 1.3% preferred not to say; age: M = 42.42, SD = 12.24) were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a crowd-sourcing website that allows researchers to distribute studies online.
After reading the assigned short story and answering manipulation check questions, participants rated how much they liked the short story (on a scale of one—did not like it to five—it was amazing). Participants also reported the degree to which they identified with the protagonist (e.g., “I think I understand the protagonist well,” Tal-Or & Cohen, 2010) and developed a parasocial bond with the protagonist (e.g., “I would like to meet the protagonist in person,” Dibble et al., 2016). Participants, then, completed the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale Revised (e.g., “I felt depressed,” Eaton et al., 2004; Van Dam & Earleywine, 2011) to assess their levels of depression. Finally, once participants answered demographic questions, they were presented with a debriefing statement including information on mental health resources (e.g., national suicide hotline).
Results coincided with our predictions. Specifically, we conducted a moderated serial mediation model revealing that narrative protagonist type significantly moderated the correlation between participants’ levels of depression and their narrative ratings, by way of character identification and parasocial bond (Index = 0.01, Bootstrapped SE = 0.003, Bootstrapped 95% CI [0.002, 0.01]). That is, participants scoring higher on depression were more likely to identify with and, subsequently, develop a parasocial bond with a depressed protagonist (Indirect Effect = 0.01, Bootstrapped SE = 0.002, Bootstrapped 95% CI [0.01, 0.01]) rather than a non-depressed protagonist (Indirect Effect = 0.003, Bootstrapped SE = 0.002, Bootstrapped 95% CI [-0.001, 0.01]), leading participants to rate the narrative more positively.
Findings demonstrated that two underlying mechanisms—character identification and parasocial bond—better elucidate the processes involved in the narrative preferences for those experiencing depression. In other words, depressed individuals were more likely to favorably rate a narrative about a similarly depressed (rather than a non-depressed) protagonist through identifying more with and forming a parasocial bond with that protagonist. The current results suggest that depressed individuals prefer depression-relevant narratives, which coincide with past work highlighting their tendency to gravitate toward negative genres reflective of their negative attentional bias (Gotlib et al., 2004).
While the present findings extend past research examining narrative preferences as a function of psychopathological traits, results also yield implications for establishing more effective creative bibliotherapy (or fictional reading therapy) interventions for depression. More specifically, research demonstrates that reading fiction engenders positive mental health outcomes, including decreases in depressive symptomology (Dowrick et al., 2012). However, researchers have yet to empirically identify which narratives (or narrative elements) help reduce depression symptoms. The current study suggests that the type of narrative protagonist—and the associated interpersonal connections readers develop with said protagonist—may serve as a crucial factor when determining the effect of narrative exposure on depression.
(1) Beevers, C.G. (2005). Cognitive vulnerability to depression: A dual process model. Clinical Psychology Review, 25 (7), 975-1002. Redirecting
(2) Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication & Society, 4 (3), 245–264. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327825MCS0403_01
(3) Dibble, J. L., Hartmann, T., & Rosaen, S. F. (2016). Parasocial interaction and parasocial relationship: Conceptual clarification and critical assessment of measures. Human Communication Research, 42 , 21-44. Parasocial Interaction and Parasocial Relationship: Conceptual Clarification and a Critical Assessment of Measures | Human Communication Research | Oxford Academic
(4) Dowrick, C., Billington, J., Robinson, J., Hamer, A., & Williams, C. (2012). Get into Reading as an intervention for common health problems: Exploring catalysts for change. Medical Humanities, 38 , 15-20. https://doi.org/10.1136/medhum-2011-010083
(5) Eaton, W. W., Smith, C., Ybarra, M., Muntaner, C., & Tien, A. (2004). Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale: Review and Revision (CESD and CESD-R). In M. E. Maruish (Ed.), The use of psychological testing for treatment planning and outcomes assessment: Instruments for adults (pp. 363–377). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
(6) Gotlib, I. H., Krasnoperova, E., Yue, D. N., & Joormann, J. (2004). Attentional biases for negative interpersonal stimuli in clinical depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113 (1), 127-135. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.113.1.127
(7) Green, M. C. (2021). Transportation into narrative worlds. In L. B. Frank & P. Falzone (eds.), Entertainment-education behind the scenes (pp. 87-101). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. Transportation into Narrative Worlds | SpringerLink
(8) Infortuna, C., Battaglia, F., Freedberg, D., Mento, C., Zoccali, R. A., Muscatello, M. R. A., & Bruno, A. (2021). The inner muses: How affective temperament traits, gender and age predict film genre preference. Personality and Individual Differences , 178 . Redirecting
(9) Tal-Or, N., & Cohen, J. (2010). Understanding audience involvement: Conceptualizing and manipulating identification and transportation. Poetics , 38 (4), 402-418. Redirecting
(10) Till, B., Tran, U. S., Voracek, M., Sonneck, G., & Niederkrotenthaler, T. (2014). Associations between film preferences and risk factors for suicide: An online survey. PloS One , 9 (7), e102293. Associations between Film Preferences and Risk Factors for Suicide: An Online Survey
(11) Tukachinsky, R., Walter, N., & Saucier, C. J. (2020). Antecedents and effects of parasocial relationships: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 70 , 868-894. Antecedents and Effects of Parasocial Relationships: A Meta-Analysis | Journal of Communication | Oxford Academic
(12) Van Dam, N. T., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Validation of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale—Revised (CESD-R): Pragmatic depression assessment in the general population. Psychiatry Research , 186 (1), 128-132. Redirecting
(13) Vizzini, N. (2006). It’s kind of a funny story . Hyperion.
(14) World Health Organization. (2021). Depression . Depressive disorder (depression)