Simulation Theory: Meaning and Application

Understanding and anticipating the intricate interactions around us is necessary for navigating the social environment. The knowledge and estimates for inanimate objects, which are subject to a set of established laws, contrast with this social understanding. Interactions with other people involve concrete observations about their physical attributes, such as their height or physical appearance, and abstract states, such as their feelings, opinions, goals, and intentions.

Additionally, judgments on mental states rather than outward appearance govern most social interactions. Nevertheless, how do people manage to do this? Considering that no one has physical access to another person's mind. Three basic hypotheses—a theory-theory-based account, a simulation, and an interactionist approach—have generally been categorized as ways to explain how people comprehend one another.

What is Simulation Theory?

Oatley initially offered a conception of reading fictional stories, but his presumptions can be easily applied to exposure to other media. According to the simulation theory, people utilize mental simulations, or mental representations of potential events, to make decisions and comprehend their surroundings. According to the simulation theory in media psychology, people use media to simulate various social and cultural events in their minds, enabling them to learn about and explore various viewpoints and ways of life.

Similar to the idea of engagement, ST distinguishes between two methods of interpreting the information provided by the narrative. The external method of reading is concentrated on literary form aspects and the cognitive understanding of how the author presents the world.

In contrast, the internal method is characterized by the "reader joining the world of the text," which causes emotional reactions to the narrative. According to simulation theory, people utilize media to simulate various social situations, such as job interviews or social gatherings, in their minds before they encounter them. People may feel more assured and competent as a result in day-to-day settings.

The Key Assumption of Simulation Theory

The primary idea of ST is that the internal mode of reading fiction can be viewed as a mental simulation of the specified surroundings, activities, and events. The readers' emotional and cognitive processes act as processors for this simulation, similar to a computer program: Readers use their memories to (re-)construct the story's environment, resulting in a unique experience.

Advantages of Simulation Theory

The following are some advantages of simulation theory in media psychology −

  • Describes how the media can influence how we perceive the world: According to simulation theory, people utilize media to mentally recreate various social and cultural experiences, which can aid them in understanding and making sense of various viewpoints and lifestyles.

  • Assists in preparing for and practicing social situations: According to simulation, people use media to mentally simulate various social settings, such as job interviews or social gatherings, to practice and prepare for them. People may feel more assured and competent as a result in day-to-day settings.

  • Offers an understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underlying media consumption: The cognitive processes associated with media consumption, such as how people imitate other people's experiences using their own experiences, are better understood using simulation theory.

  • Provides a structure for analyzing media effects: To understand better the influences of media on people and society and how it may be utilized to explore and understand various views and experiences, simulation theory offers a valuable framework for scholars exploring these effects.

Emotional responses to simulation

According to ST, three basic ways of simulating a story world can trigger emotional reactions.

  • First, sympathy is an affective experience that resembles Zillmann's idea of empathy and causes emotional responses such as identifying with the characters.

  • Second, the internal simulation may cause the readers' previously suppressed emotions to surface. For instance, a short tale about a relationship ending could be comparable to something that some readers have gone through. As a result, the emotional state that accompanied the earlier incident is felt once more when the story is received. The phrase "memory emotions" was first used by Oatley (1994) to characterize the emotive reactions that reading can elicit.

  • Character identification is the third source of emotional emotions. Some narrative texts allow the reader to adopt a character's viewpoint rather than just reading about them "from the outside," as Zillmann's ADT proposes. Readers can replicate a character's feelings and feel these emotions for themselves by "peeking into their heads." It is important to distinguish between this emotional connection and empathic reactions to feeling for a character whose inner thoughts and emotions are hidden from direct view.

ST and Presence

According to ST, mediated stimuli (like the novel's text) are cognitively modified and filled in by the user's memories and imagery to run the simulation. This means that mental simulations do not fully reject external information. By emphasizing the centrality of internal construction processes, ST can thus explain the building of rich sensations of a mediated environment without the need for highly realistic and immersive VR technology.

This could contribute to the psychological foundation of presence. The "book problem," or the fact that feelings of presence can be produced by reading a book, a medium lacking practically all immersive qualities, may be particularly amenable to resolution using Oatley's theoretical framework. ST's initial premise is that reading a narrative can elicit intense emotional reactions (and hence a state of engrossment, curiosity, or presence) by reawakening emotions that readers have previously felt in situations comparable to those depicted in the story.


Some criticize simulation theory because they claim it might result in a reductionist perspective of media effects, which implies that media merely "fool" people into thinking or acting in specific ways. This may disregard people's autonomy and capacity for making choices and the nuanced nature of the media's social influence. It is critical to understand that numerous factors can affect a person's ideas, feelings, and behaviors, and media consumption is just one of them.

Updated on: 02-May-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started