Fielding Graduate University

2020 De la Vina Street
Santa Barbara, California 93105
Admissions: 805-898-4026

Washington DC Offices
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20003

Media Psychology Programs

Fielding’s Media Psychology programs enable students to enter at their qualification, readiness and goal levels. The PhD in Media Psychology program provides a research-based program that informs practice in an evolving field of study. The Masters of Arts in Media Psychology is 100% online, applies psychological science to media and technology landscapes. The 3-course Certificate in Media Psychology program is also 100% online, and offers emphases in Media Neuroscience and Brand Psychology & Audience Engagement.

Learn More: Media Psychology



Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Devastating. The Motivational Effect of Compassion on Securing Narrative Engagement

Authors: Carlos González Velázquez

Original Publication Site & Date: Media Psychology Symposium, July 2020. [virtual symposium]

Abstract: Why do we enjoy consuming sad stories? Although much progress has been made, none of the existing explanations to the “sadness paradox,” deriving gratification from the consumption of sad content can satisfy all of its occurrences. The paradox remains for stories lacking gratifying resolutions, meaning, or sufficient instances of prosocial behavior to explain the pleasure associated with feelings of being moved. Extending on previous findings, I propose that compassion incentivizes narrative engagement and that the gratification derived from the consumption of sad content follows an overall positive valuation of the somatic changes felt while engaged with a story.

Why do we enjoy consuming sad stories?

I suggest that enjoyment should be understood as emerging from both appetitive and consummatory phases of reward, and thus that enjoyment can occur in the absence of consummatory pleasure. Findings from the self-report questionnaires suggest a strong and positive correlation between compassion, engagement, being moved, and gratification. The physiological measures suggest a negative correlation between levels of salivary Interleukin 18 and gratification that agrees with models of social motivation predicting that hypoactivity of the µ-opioid receptors results in a craving for social contact. Nevertheless, the low number of valid cases demand a cautious interpretation of this association.

Presented by
Carlos González Velázquez

Fielding Graduate University

#sadnessparadox, #mediapsy2020, #compassion, #narrativeengagement, #enjoyment, #gratification, #beingmoved

Carlos González Velázquez, PhD

Author and Professor. Instructor of Changing Hearts with Storytelling in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension


  • Nick

    July 17, 2020 1:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing this research with us. In reading your results, I noticed that the different analyses are done somewhat independent from each other (for example, “being moved” on “engagement” and then “engagement” on “compassion). I was curious if you could offer insights into if and how some of these constructs were inter-related? Given that you’ve conducted an experiment (albeit with a rather small control group), I was wondering for example if there might be a causal model supported by extant theory. More importantly, I was trying to understand what you saw as the focal DV in this research — which might also help motivate a testable model in this work?

    I’d love to stay in touch and learn a bit more about this work. =)

    • Carlos

      July 17, 2020 2:20 pm


      Compassion predicted engagement, gratification (enjoyment), and being moved for the treatment group.

      I argue that:

      1. compassion motivates engagement by making us care for a character. Affective disposition theory proposes that we like characters who’s actions we judge morally correct; I’m proposing that we like characters for whom we feel sorry —maybe that’s why we like unlikable or immoral characters such as Macbeth, the Joker, Quasimodo, etc. We may not embrace their goals but because empathize, we understand the importance of their goals for their welfare, and because we sympathize we want their welfare to improve.

      2. that gratification (that would be the focal DV) derives from an assessment of the how the whole engaging experience felt, where enjoyment = anticipatory pleasure (fueled by dopamine) + pleasure (provoked by endorphins). I only measured for IL-18 which correlates with activity of the µ-opioid receptors—according to findings from others—. The association I found matches what the literature describes but the evidence wasn’t strong enough to accept H4 with full confidence (but neither to reject it). So what I am suggesting is that we enjoy sad stories even if they don’t bring us pleasure (sad ending) because enjoyment = the urgency/anticipation/enthusiasm that glues us to the story + pleasure that results from achieving a goal, happy ending. Some stories have no happy ending but we still enjoy them because they kept us glued and as a whole we appreciated the experience, like Oliver proposes.

      The association between engagement and gratification is only implied in the poster because it has been amply demonstrated before, but they did correlate.

      The theory behind the model is a mix of: a) models of altruism that predict that compassion (i.e., empathy, empathic concern, sympathy, depending on the author) promotes approach; b) affective disposition theory which proposes that we like characters we judge as morally correct but (Raney’s extension) that we use mental schemas to make that decision — compassion becomes a cue; c) transportation theory where engagement predicts enjoyment; d) flow theory; e) models of social motivation from cognitive neuroscience that predict that when in distress we look for the company of others for the comfort of endorphins.

      The way being moved is described (feelings of elation, insight, etc.) and evidence from others suggests that moved people release endorphins, maybe as a way to comfort us from vicarious pain, but I didn’t found evidence of that.

Post a Comment