Carl Plantinga, Calvin University

Developing Moral Understanding at the Movies

What role does engaging with fictional characters play in moral reasoning?

How can we encourage collaboration between cognitive science, philosophy, and film studies to study how character engagement, reflection, and moral understanding are connected?

Grant Title
Character Engagement and Moral Understanding in Screen Stories
Legal Organization
Calvin University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 May 2025
Grant Amount

Most of us have experienced strong effects when watching movies or series. We cry, laugh, swoon, tap our feet, flinch, and sometimes even involuntarily call out in alarm or delight. But we also think. We wonder what will happen next. We fill in the narrative gaps. We are tireless moral monitors, gauging the propriety of character actions as they go about their business. We wonder what she or he should have done. We wonder what we would have done. We think about the moral implications of complex situations. In short, stories on screens provide experiences that engage the moral imagination.

I call a film an experience machine,” Dr. Carl Plantinga says, “What I mean by that is that it's not solely a cognitive or intellectual exercise; it involves the entire body. It creates a holistic and often very powerful experience.
Dr. Carl Plantinga

The research team leading this project, “Character Engagement and Moral Understanding in Screen Stories,” knows that on-screen stories can offer simulations of complex social and moral dilemmas. There’s an intricate relationship between films and the impact they have on our moral reasoning; Plantinga’s team has carefully narrowed in on what they believe are the most impactful elements.

Getting Involved

The research central to this project is structured around two hypotheses: that “character engagement” during film viewing precipitates moral understanding, and that “post-viewing reflection” solidifies and deepens this understanding. Character engagement refers to how a viewer becomes mentally and emotionally involved with fictional characters.

“We believe that characters are the focal point for most spectators when they watch a narrative film. The parasocial relationship with characters, the way we develop attitudes toward them, the way that viewers depend on their perspectives for their enjoyment of the film… all of that is vital. It’s one of the most important psychological aspects of taking in narratives of any sort.”

The Afterlife

The reflective afterlife of a film is the other key element. It’s the post-viewing reflective process that continues after watching a movie, which enables deeper contemplation of the film’s themes.

Dr. Plantinga likes to quote filmmaker Paul Schrader on this point, who says that a good movie ‘”doesn’t end when the lights go up. It continues on the sidewalk outside the theater, in the cab, and at the restaurant,” as viewers debate the movie they have just seen, integrating their movie experience into everyday life. This insight is central to project of Plantinga and his collaborators.

This dual focus on character engagement and the “reflective afterlife,” aims to discover how films can catalyze moral reflection and learning, cultivating nuanced understandings of moral issues.

The Method

The project’s methodology combines traditional questionnaires with advanced neuroscience techniques like eye-tracking and EEG to capture nuanced data about viewers’ responses. This approach leverages recent advances in media technology and neuroscience and ties them directly to the spiritual impact films can have. Plantinga and his project partners, Drs. Allison Eden, Dan Levin, and Murray Smith, hope to bridge the gap between the immediate perceptual experience of watching a film and the enduring moral learning films can provide.

The Origin Story

The significance of this study is underscored by its interdisciplinary nature. It was born from a previous project, in which Dr. Plantinga sought to lay the foundation for this work by holding an interdisciplinary symposium. The symposium resulted in the book, Screen Stories and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press, 2023), and in cross-disciplinary cooperation.

Dr. Plantinga gathered experts from various fields who were all asking similar questions, albeit from different perspectives, with the goal of getting better at communicating outside of their disciplinary silos. It was from that symposium that the vision and relationships for this project were conceived.

Merging insights from media psychology, film studies, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophical aesthetics, the architecture emerged to address the challenges often encountered in such diverse academic research. The result could be one of the most holistic understandings of how films foster moral understanding yet.

The Power of Screen Stories

Stories have acted to convey meaning and purpose going back to early human history. The technology, sophistication, and artfulness of modern films have added psychologically salient dimensions to the impact of myths and great works of literature.

Dr. Plantinga explains what researchers are beginning to understand better the relationship between feeling and thinking in a powerful medium like film. One example is the power of the close-up. “When we see a close-up of a face on the screen, we not only consider and understand the character’s emotions—but through facial mimicry and emotional contagion we may feel some of that emotion ourselves. Mirror neurons, motion and movement, rhythm and pacing, music and sound—all of these can provide us not just with an objective understanding, but a bodily experience of what the character is going through.”

It’s this bodily experience that may lead to a robust reflective afterlife for a film, which then influences how morally formative it has the power to be.
Dr. Carl Plantinga

The Case Studies

To operationalize the research, a range of films was carefully selected to be analyzed, including Dead Man Walking, The Help, Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Saving Private Ryan. These films serve as case studies for exploring how character engagement can influence moral understanding. For instance, Dead Man Walking addresses the death penalty, while The Help and Do the Right Thing delve into racial issues.

Each film provides a unique narrative and character framework for examining how viewers’ moral understanding can be shaped through cinematic storytelling.

The Afterlife of Screen Stories

Plantinga’s project team intends to create an open-source database of coded film scenes and a measures bank to facilitate future cross-disciplinary studies on character engagement and moral understanding. By providing a detailed analysis of the mechanisms through which films influence moral cognition, the project contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the educational and culture-shaping power of cinema.

The project’s interdisciplinary approach not only enriches the research but also paves the way for future studies at the intersection of film studies, psychology, neuroscience, and ethics.

Plantinga is excited about being part of a change in his own discipline, film studies, where traditionally using the term “moral” has been somewhat taboo. It was much easier to talk about films as “political” or “ideological.” He notes, however, “I think that’s changing. I think that people understand now that all political issues are also moral issues, and that they really can’t be differentiated so cleanly.”

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