The Role of Contextual Information in Identifying Character Motives: Proposing a Taxonomy of Content Features

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Ms. Catherine Marple

:classical_building: Affiliation: Wake Forest University
Title: The Role of Contextual Information in Identifying Character Motives: Proposing a Taxonomy of Content Features.

Abstract (long version below): Textual portrayals of a character’s motives influence identification, moral judgement, and enjoyment. However, there is no systematic, theory-driven taxonomy of the narrative content features that indicate a character’s motive to audiences. Developing a taxonomy would improve precision in coding and experimentally varying the construct of motive. The construct of instantiation from motivational psychology is used to propose an initial taxonomy. Instantiation research identifies four categories of contextual information that lead observers to interpret behaviors in terms of the motives that initiate them. Narrative content that highlights the four types of contextual information, then, should indicate the character’s motive.

:movie_camera: : Contextual Information, Catherine Marple IGEL2022 - YouTube

:newspaper: Long abstract

The portrayal of characters’ motives in narrative media has played an increasingly important role in the past two decades of media effects research. Motives are the underlying values that initiate a character’s goals, emotions, and behaviors (Schwartz, 2012). Variations in how they are portrayed can influence audience judgements about a character’s morality (Krakowiak & Tsay-Vogel, 2013), prompt audiences to morally disengage on behalf of antiheros (Tamborini et al., 2018), and affect audience identification with characters (Cohen & Tal-Or, 2017). Thus, conceptualizing and operationalizing this construct is key to understanding the processes of narrative enjoyment.

Identifying the narrative content that indicates motive, however, has proved a challenge. Information about a character’s motives is often latent rather than explicit, making it difficult to operationalize for quantitative research. For example, while a viewer might interpret the motive of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings as “care for the people of Middle Earth,” the specific passages of dialogue, camera angles, character behaviors, or sequences of editing that contribute to this conclusion can be difficult to identify. What categories and definitions would reliably lead independent coders to the relevant content?

Media effects researchers have used a variety of approaches to capture a character’s motive (e.g., Hopp et al., 2021; Weber et al., 2018; Krakowiak & Tsay-Vogel, 2013; Hahn et al., 2017), but none of these operational linkages are based on the psychological research about how humans interpret motives. For example, Krakowiak and Tsay-Vogel (2013) manipulated the character motives in a written short story about a climber who leaves his injured friend after receiving a transmission about a brewing storm. To change the motive, they varied three sentences that explicitly stated why the climber left (either to save several other injured climbers, or to get the satisfaction of making it to the summit). Likewise, a codebook used for several content analyses (e.g., Aley et al., 2021; Hahn et al., 2021; Tamborini et al., 2017, 2021b) outlines definitions for five underlying motivations from moral foundations theory (Eden et al., 2021; Tamborini et al., 2021a). The motivation of care, for example, is defined as “an entity responding to another in need” (see Hahn et al., 2021, supplemental materials). Behaviors uphold care when “an entity (human/animal) alleviates a need of another at a cost to self,” where “need” takes the form of physical pain, emotional distress, lack of resources, or decreased well-being. One subcategory of behavior is compassion/kindness (“the act of showing a deep awareness of and concern for another’s physical and emotional suffering,”), examples of which include crying in response to others’ tears and dialogue such as, "Helen, Are you OK? Do you need any help?” As these examples suggest, in extant studies, few operational linkages between character motives and the content that indicates them are derived from research on how motives manifest visibly. Extant linkages have made impressive advances; however, if a theoretical basis from the psychology of motives is available, it should at least be considered.

The construct of instantiation from motivational psychology offers just such a theoretical basis. Instantiation explains the processes by which motives manifest as context-specific behaviors (Hanel et al., 2017; Schwartz, 2012). As a byproduct of explaining those processes, it identifies several types of contextual information that help observers infer motives from observed behaviors. The four categories of contextual information are object of value (the person or thing that embodies the value for the acting agent), threat/opportunity (changes to a context that may damage or improve the wellbeing of an object of value), consequences (the positive or negative outcomes that a course of action is expected to have), and courses of action (any behavior that is expected to protect or promote the wellbeing of the object of value in response to opportunities or threats). When portrayed in narrative media, these types of contextual information may lead viewers to interpret a character’s dialogue, emotions, and behavior in light of a particular motive. The present study proposes an initial taxonomy of the narrative content that embodies such contextual information.

Empirical research is needed to test and refine this taxonomy. However, it offers a starting point for more precisely measuring and manipulating the narrative content that gives audiences access to the motives of characters—thereby helping explain moral judgement, moral disengagement, and identification.


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Cohen, J., & Tal-Or, N. (2017). Antecedents of identification: Character, text, and audiences. In F. Hakemulder, M. M. Kuijpers, E. S. Tan, K. Bálint, & M. M. Doicaru (Eds.), Linguistic Approaches to Literature (Vol. 27, pp. 133–153). John Benjamins Publishing Company. Chapter 7. Antecedents of identification : Character, text, and audiences | Jonathan Cohen and Nurit Tal-Or
Eden, A., Tamborini, R., Aley, M., & Goble, H. (2021). Advances in Research on the Model of Intuitive Morality and Exemplars (MIME) (pp. 231–249).
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Dear Cassie,

Thank you for your presentation! I am looking forward to the discussion tomorrow.

Very nice presentation, Cassie, very informative, a good overview, a comprehensive taxonomy. I bet you are a good teacher.
I was wondering whether you would want to include formal aspects that are traditionally studied in film and literary studies (especially narratology); I suspect that some of the insights of such more text-oriented disciplines might scaffold/refine/complement aspects of your taxonomy; I didn’t see any references to e.g., studies of characterization, but maybe you already use them?