The therapeutic effects of cinema: An experimental study of catharsis through narrative media and contemplation
Student researcher

Khoo, Guan-Soon (Ph.D. student)
This paper is based on the authorís dissertation

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. Mary Beth Oliver (advisor, committee chair)


Catharsis has been dismissed by behaviorists and media psychologists since the 1970s because the dominant venting model has failed to produce empirical support for this construct (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977; Zillmann, 1998). However, the notion of catharsis persists in the Humanities (Belfiore, 1992) and everyday usage. Using a broadened conceptualization, based on the clarification view (Halliwell, 1986; Nussbaum, 1986; Oatley, 2011), this research proposed a new catharsis theory and tested its hypotheses using narrative media and a 20-minute self-reflection task.


H1a: Exposure to human drama and expressive writing on the drama positively predicts health and psychological well-being compared to non-expressive writing on a non-emotional topic.
H1b: Imagining a traumatic event and writing expressively on the trauma positively predicts health and psychological well-being compared to non- expressive writing on a non-emotional topic.
H2: Exposure to human drama coupled with expressive writing leads to greater identification compared to imagining a traumatic event and writing expressively about it.
H3: Greater identification leads to greater self-efficacy in negative affect regulation.
H4a: Self-efficacy in negative affect regulation positively predicts physical health.
H4b: Self-efficacy in negative affect regulation positively predicts psychological well-being.
H5: Exposure to human drama leads to greater meaningful affective states when the individual writes expressively about the human drama compared to no expressive writing.
H6: Greater meaningful affect leads to greater self-compassion.
H7a: Self-compassion positively predicts physical health.
H7b: Self-compassion positively predicts psychological well-being.
H9: Identification and transportation will mediate the relationships between narrativity and congruency between media characteristics and characteristics of the self-narrative and self-concept.
RQ1: What will be more strongly associated with congruency between media characteristics and characteristics of the self-narrative and self-concept: transportation or identification?


A 4-condition controlled experiment was designed to examine and explore catharsis through mediated human drama in two modes: cinematic and text-based.


Results showed that the direct effects of catharsis through media exposure and subsequent introspection were weak. Nonetheless, indirect cathartic effects through cinematic human drama were found in the form of improved general health and psychological well-being. These therapeutic effects were mediated by identification with fictional characters, improvements in self-efficacy in regulating sadness, increases in self-compassion, and the use of particular word categories during contemplation. For the latter, the use of greater insight and discrepancy words indirectly predicted better general health and mental well-being, whereas the use of more certainty and causation words marginally deteriorated health and well-being. This study provides evidence for media-centered cathartic effects and some explanatory mechanisms for their health consequences. Theoretical, research, and practical implications are discussed in light of future catharsis research and in support of nonimmediate or delayed media effects; study limitations and suggestions for follow-up investigations are also offered.


The use of catharsis as a theoretical explanation for the redeeming qualities of expressing emotions has been made in social psychology research on real life events and traumas (Greenberg et al., 1996; Pennebaker & Beall, 1986) and in media psychology research on tragic drama (Zillmann, 1998). Media-induced catharsis is particularly valuable as a form of emotional coping without directly visiting the realities of everyday existence. The merit of catharsis through media that are designed for leisurely pursuits lies in the relative security of its indirect nature; distressing events experienced through fiction are not stained with personal memories, unlike the evocation of personal life events, and may enhance media usersí development of psychological resilience to future episodes of undesirable emotional upheavals. Consequently, this catharsis study has attempted a novel application of the activity of expressive contemplation on human drama consumption and found evidence of benefits after a meaningful entertainment experience. In the process of this investigation, a new catharsis theory for media psychology was tested and indirect health effects were found for individuals who underwent self-reflection by writing a short essay on the tragic events portrayed in the human story to which they were exposed through storytelling media. The empirical evidence from this initial exploration of a catharsis theory not rooted in the pervasive notion of emotional purgation showed that the cinematic media has a high potential for facilitating catharsis through drama, especially when the vicarious experience is coupled with language-based introspection. Moreover, additional evidence suggests that the process of contemplation via a flexible personal outlook, as opposed to adopting fixed judgments on the fictional scenario, strongly promotes mental well-being in the subsequent weeks. Overall, these are notable findings in light of the disfavored reputation of this ancient concept in contemporary communications and psychology research. As a form of insight-gaining recreation attained through a stimulated imagination, catharsis appears to be very much alive and well.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University