Mind Over Morals: Character Morality and Viewer Need for Cognition as Predictors of Anticipated Enjoyment of a Television Show

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Moore, Amanda E.
affective disposition theory; anticipated enjoyment; anticipated selection; character liking; moral ambiguity; need for cognition
thesis / dissertation description
Using affective disposition theory (ADT) as a theoretical framework, this study examined the role of need for cognition (NFC) in a potential viewer’s desire to consume media content featuring a morally ambiguous character. According to ADT, enjoyment is driven by a viewer’s moral evaluations of characters (Zillmann & Cantor, 1972). Another body of research, which examines media consumption through the lens of uses and gratifications theory, emphasizes individual differences in a viewer’s desire to enjoy and select media content (Katz, Blumler, Gurevitch, 1973). One such individual difference that has emerged as a predictor of media selection is need for cognition (NFC); defined as an individual’s desire to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavors (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984). A great deal of previous media entertainment research has focused on either morality or individual differences, but rarely on both. This thesis sought to contribute to recent research that has begun to fill that gap. Specifically, the objective of this thesis was to investigate the effects of both the morality of a main television character and the potential viewer’s NFC, a specific individual difference, on anticipated enjoyment and selection of a fictitious television show and on affective dispositions toward the main character. The study was conducted using an experiment with a 3 (moral vs. ambiguous vs. immoral) X 2 (high NFC vs. low NFC) factorial design. Three versions of an original television plot synopses were created, each featuring a moral, morally ambiguous, or immoral main character. The show, titled Southern Justice focused on Harrison Brooks, a seasoned detective accused of murder. Brooks’ actions and the resulting outcomes were manipulated to create the three conditions (moral, morally ambiguous, and immoral). After reading the plot synopsis to which they had been randomly assigned, participants reported their anticipated enjoyment and selection of the show and to what extent they liked the main character, Brooks. Results revealed that the morality of the main character and NFC respectively had consistent effects. Specifically, the results showed that participants liked and were more likely to select a television show that focused on a moral, rather than an immoral or morally ambiguous, character. Moreover, participants with a high level of NFC were more likely to anticipate enjoying and selecting the show than were participants with low NFC, regardless of the morality of the show’s main character. However, contrary to expectations, no interaction effects between a participants’ NFC and the morality of the main character were found for any dependent variable. These results indicate the utility of NFC in predicting individual television preferences but suggest moral complexity does not influence its role. In all, this research has implications for television producers and target niche audiences. Future research should aim to further explore NFC’s role in a viewer’s media enjoyment and selection.