Uncomfortable Reading Experiences

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Victoria Pöhls @victoria_poehls

:classical_building: Affiliation: MPI Empirical Aesthetics

Title: Uncomfortable Reading Experiences

Abstract (long version below): Readers do not only experience engaging with narratives as positive or pleasurable, but can also react with feelings of discomfort, unease and even withdrawal. To explore a) under which circumstances narratives are experienced as uncomfortable and b) which features of the narratives contribute to nevertheless sustained attention and engagement, I propose a possible study plan based on the question “How could we (subjectively and objectively) measure states of discomfort during narrative exposure?” using a mixed-method design including video-analysis of bodily movement, FACS, facial blood flow, skin conductance measurements and a sensor chair.

Poster_IGEL 23_Pöhls_Victoria_Uncomfortable Reading Experiences-compressed.pdf (245.0 KB)

:newspaper: Long abstract

Commonly we think of reading or, more general, narrative experiences as eliciting pleasurable states such as flow or absorption, and as creating feelings of suspense and identification which encourage us to continue the experience. But while this might be reasons why people engage in reading or other types of narrative experiences such as films or audiobooks, some actual experiences might be challenging or make audience members even outright uncomfortable and uneasy.

I am interested in exploring the latter, especially with regard to the following three questions: When do we experience narratives as uncomfortable? Which features of the narratives contribute to nevertheless sustained attention and engagement? How could we (subjectively and objectively) measure states of discomfort during narrative exposure? In this poster presentation I put forward hypotheses on the first two questions and propose a possible study plan based on the third question.

Regarding the first question, when do we experience narratives as uncomfortable?, I theorize that certain topics, especially those that are deemed taboo, a moral transgression, and/or are typically affected by a “social flinch” (e.g. child sexual abuse) are more likely to elicit uncomfortableness in the audience, eliciting thoughts about or the wish of withdrawing, as uncomfortableness can be linked to experiencing fear or disgust. Additionally, the mode of presentation might play a role: I hypothesize that narrative techniques which create closeness (in contrast to distancing devices) would create severer discomfort if used in conjunction with the unease-eliciting topics. It would also be interesting to test whether self-selection of the narrative material decreases the occurrence of uncomfortable experiences (due to avoidance of topics one predicts to have negative reactions to) and whether personal characteristics could influence the likelihood of such experiences (some might seek some degree of uncomfortableness) and/or the inclination to stop reading/listening/watching.

The second question, which features of the narratives contribute to nevertheless sustained attention and engagement?, concerns authors’ inferred aspiration to create pieces that are read, viewed, or listened to in its entirety even though the experience might be uncomfortable. (There might be exceptions where the prime focus is to shock and making the audience stop the engagement is a desired outcome, but I assume that this is not the case for most narratives.) I hypothesize that in moments where uncomfortableness increases in the narrative, these are paired with strategies that make the audience want to prolong the experience, such as suspense or distancing mechanisms (e.g. figurative language).

Lastly, I would like to put forward some possible measurements to subjectively and objectively measure uncomfortable states during narrative exposure. To study the subjective experience, interviews could be conducted which focus on retrospective or potential reading experiences that have or could, in participant’s’ own opinion, elicit uncomfortableness. The results of these interviews could, in addition to choices based on the theoretical reflections on topic and style, aid in choosing narratives that potentially elicit the sensation under study in an audience. To investigate behavioural and physiological correlates to a self-report measurement during or after narrative exposure, gestures and bodily movement could be video-taped and analysed for unconscious gestures which expose mental states of discomfort (e.g. nervous foot tapping, hair touching, lip biting), FACS and facial blood flow changes could be used for signs of fear and disgust, a chair with pressure sensors could be used to pick up weight distributions (‘wiggling’), and an increase in skin conductance could indicate disgust and discomfort. I will discuss which measures could be used in conjunction, in which settings and with which narrative types (film, books, audio books). By using a wide array of measures of objective nature paired with subjective measures, a profile for uncomfortable reading experiences could be established, which could then be used to objectively discern states of discomfort in readers/audiences of narrative experiences.