Affective Disposition Theory

Why do most people experience intense levels of arousal and suspense when viewing a thriller film or reading a thriller book? It is necessary to pinpoint the elements that lead to such intense levels of commitment. A theory of theatre appreciation based on the audience's interpretation of the characters presented by the media has been advanced by Zillmann (1994, 1996). Affective disposition theory (ADT) presumptions have undergone extensive empirical testing and have consistently yielded results.

What do we mean by Affective Disposition?

In philosophy, the ability of an object to act or be acted upon in a particular way is referred to as disposition or dispositional property. A disposition is a latent characteristic that only emerges during particular interactions. An individual's affective disposition is a collection of emotional remnants from past interactions, experiences, and encounters that operate as potentials to affect and influence the present.

What is Affective Disposition Theory (ADT)?

Affective disposition theory is a set of ideas for why and how an audience member loves different media entertainment tales. In layman's words, the theory asserts that favorable or negative results for liked and despised characters would lead to greater satisfaction. Contrarily, enjoyment is reduced when liked characters suffer bad outcomes, and disliked characters benefit from good ones. Therefore, the idea can be broken down into three psychological processes or components: the dispositions created and held toward characters, emotional reactivity to those characters' problems, and the viewer's hedonic reaction to the story's final resolution. These processes primarily include empathy and morality, which helps to explain why different viewers' emotional reactions to and pleasure of media entertainment vary.

How do viewers evaluate the media content?

According to Zillmann, the analysis of the drama reception process can be broken down into seven parts.

People who read books or watch movies pay attention to how characters in the media behave. A moral dimension is used to assess the characters' actions. If the audience morally approves of a character's actions, they develop a favorable affective disposition toward the character, which means they start to like her or him. The heroes or "good men" are typically the individuals that people like. Contrarily, characters perceived as acting immorally elicit negative emotions in viewers or readers, typically with villains or "bad guys." The audience adopts a particular viewpoint on the story's development through these affective inclinations.

In anticipating the unfolding events, viewers or readers wish for results that the characters deserve; specifically, they want a happy ending for the likable characters and a bad ending for those resentful of them. In addition to these desires, viewers or readers worry that likable characters will suffer a terrible outcome and that the villains will get an unfairly favorable result. The viewers or readers compare the provided outcomes to their expectations and want to evaluate the story's actual happenings in light of these hopes and concerns. If the outcomes are consistent with the audience's moral expectations, i.e., the "good guys" have a happy ending, and the "bad guys" have a horrible ending. The viewers or readers experience positive emotions from empathizing with the characters.

A process known as counter-empathy kicks in when terrible guys receive their justly deserving negative fate. The viewers or readers get happy emotions from viewing the real awful event because of the moral justification of the bad outcome. Contrarily, negative emotions will be felt as a result of empathic disappointment or rage at the defeat of the good guys and the unfair success of the evil guys if the results shown do not match the hopes and concerns of the viewers or readers related to the good guys and bad guys. Because negative feelings develop as a result of seeing great results, the latter situation is once more a type of counter-empathy. Finally, the result is morally assessed, and the appreciation cycle is resumed.

ADT and Suspense

According to studies on suspense, liking characters increases suspense, and morally just outcomes are linked to increased enjoyment of the story. ADT was initially used in humor, but it has subsequently been utilized in many other genres, including drama and suspense. Raney (2006) provided six guidelines for all ADT implementations, independent of genre. These theories of disposition −

  • Emphasize the enjoyment of media content;

  • Are concerned with viewers' emotional reactions to media content;

  • Assert that viewers' feelings about characters have a significant impact on enjoyment;

  • Claim that viewers' attitudes toward characters can range from extremely positive to extremely negative;

  • Note that justice is a necessary element, and

  • Emphasize the significance of taking individual differences (such as past experiences and emotional tendencies) into account.

In the context of suspense, these propositions imply that our emotional reaction to and enjoyment of the story are influenced by our disposition toward the characters (on a continuum from extremely positive to extremely negative) and that our enjoyment of the story as a whole is significantly influenced by the perceived justice of the outcome. As a result, ADT contends that to fully appreciate the suspense experience, one must feel empathy for a character and believe that their consequences are just.


ADT has proven to be a valuable paradigm for examining how entertaining media are received. ADT has also been used in part for media items like news that is not always meant to please their audience. ADT does not adequately explain why people choose—and to some extent apparently enjoy—sad movies and shows, such as melodrama or crime stories that do not lead to morally proper conclusions, and because ADT expects the audience to be passive with no critical faculties, Vorderer has pointed out that ADT should not be regarded as a unified theory of entertainment despite the theory's great explanatory power and the strong empirical evidence for its assumptions.

Updated on: 27-Apr-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started