Affective Disposition Theory

Affective Disposition Theory: Understanding Emotional Dispositions

Affective Disposition Theory (ADT) is a psychological framework that seeks to understand and explain how individuals’ emotional dispositions influence their thoughts, behaviors, and overall experiences. While the foundational idea of the theory has wide implications, it is mostly focused on individual reactions to various media entertainment narratives. Basically, the theory predicts that a person’s enjoyment of a media production increases when liked characters experience positive outcomes and/or when disliked characters experience negative ones. Conversely, a person’s enjoyment decreases when liked characters experience negative outcomes and/or disliked characters experience positive ones.

Arthur A. Raney wrote “disposition based theories contend that enjoyment of media content is a function of a viewer’s affection disposition towards characters and the story line outcomes associate with those characters” (Raney, 2004).

While the hypothesis is simple, it draws upon complex cognitive processes, involving moral judgement, bias, and prediction. In addition, we see within the theory shadows of human motivation for empathy and indifference.

Key Definition:

Affective dispositional theory predicts that a person’s enjoyment of a media production increases when liked characters experience positive outcomes and/or when disliked characters experience negative ones.

History of Affective Disposition Theory

We can trace Affective Disposition Theory back to a series of articles published in the 1970’s by Dolf Zillmann. In 1972, Zillmann proposed that “behavioral predispositions…critically affect the mirth response.” He explains that when we watch an individual attempt to bring about a personally desirable state of affairs that we “will respond antagonistically to any agent obstructing achievement of the valued goals, and this resentment will motivate him to respond euphorically when witnessing the goal-blocking agent undergo undesirable experiences and suffer misfortunes” (Zillmann & Cantor, 1972).

Basically, Zillmann proposed that “humour appreciation is facilitated when the respondent feels antipathy or resentment toward disparaged protagonists and impaired when he feels sympathy or liking for these protagonists.” However, Zillmann explains that his dispositional model is not a dichotomy-based model of like or dislike. Zillmann’s “disposition model is thus made sensitive to degrees of affect” (1975). Basically, the more we resonate with a character the more we find pleasure in their success and sorrow for their failings. In contrast, the antagonist to those we resonate with creates the opposite reaction to their successes and failures.

The Basics of Affective Disposition Theory

“Disposition theory contends that viewers form alliances with characters in drama on a continuum of affect from extremely positive through indifference to extremely negative” (Raney, 2004). We can feel close affiliation with a character, complete dislike with a character, or anywhere in-between, including indifferences. Accordingly, these affective dispositions then impact our enjoyment of the unfolding of a narrative. Essentially, our emotional dispositions form the lens through which we perceive and interpret the entertainment. “We like and cheer for certain characters, while despising and rooting against others.”

Zillmann explains that affection for a protagonist only “impairs the fun” (1975). Perhaps, similar to the affective reaction described in the German word ‘schadenfreude.’ Laterally translated is ‘harm-joy.’ We experience joy when seeing the speeding motorist that nearly ran us off the road getting a speeding ticket.

Why Do We React Positively and Negatively to Media Characters?


We have fundamental beliefs about life. We like certain people. And, we like their personality traits, morals, and humor. Perhaps, we have or aspire to have some of those same traits. Along with our vision of the ideal person, we also envision ideal consequences for such a person. They act the way we believe a person should act so, we assume, life should reward them accordingly. However, life is not so kind.

Life is complex. Unfortunately, we can do all the right things and still have something terribly bad happen to us. In a recent British crime drama, centering around an ethical detective (DCI), the last episode in the final season ended with the shocking murder of the detective as a consequence to his unrelenting ethical resolve.

Such exposures rattle our beliefs. We experience cognitive dissonance of sorts. Events that disrupt our natural prediction of rewards and punishments rattle our sense of rightness. The person that lives healthy should live a long life. However, sometimes tragedy and illness strikes and they die young.


We form biases, liking some and disliking others. A variety of forces contribute to these biases. However, once a bias is established it strongly influences our evaluations. We experience empathy for those we affiliate with and indifference, or even hurtful wishes, for those we dislike. So, when watching a movie, these biases create affective reactions based on our predispositions.

Implications and Applications of Affective Disposition Theory

Affective Disposition Theory has significant implications for understanding human behavior, emotional well-being, and interpersonal relationships. We don’t just react affectively to movie characters. We react to people in the real world. Our affective response to a news report of violence is strongly influenced by affective pre-dispositions regarding the aggressor and the victim.

The senseless attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, late at night, and in his own home, brought joy to some. They excused their hurt-joy response by suggesting he probably invited the intruder over.

Raney explains “our social nature requires that the selection of favored and unfavored characters not be capricious; our emotional side-taking must be morally justified” (2004). A type of confabulation swoops in to smooth over our joyful reaction, creating an acceptable meaning for our socially misdirected joy and someone else’s hurt. Zillmann suggests that viewers act as untiring moral monitors who continually render verdicts about rightness or wrongness of a characters actions (Raney, 2004).

Unconscious Judgements

It is important to point out that affective reaction is an unconscious response. The moral framework and built-in biases typically are already in place. We automatically react affectively without any conscious processes taking place. Once we react, perhaps, we would benefit to examine the unconscious elements impacting our judgements, curtailing empathy, and finding joy in the harm of another person.

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Raney, Arthur A. (2004). Expanding Disposition Theory: Reconsidering Character Liking, Moral Evaluations, and Enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4). DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00319.x

Zillmann, Dolf; Cantor, Johann (1972). Directionality of transitory dominance as a communication variable affecting humor appreciation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(2), 191-198. DOI: 10.1037/h0033384

Zillmann, Dolf; Cantor, Johann (1975/1995). A Disposition Theory of Humour and Mirth. Edited by Anthony Chapman in Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications. Routledge; 2nd edition.

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