March 27, 2017

A summary of interesting research findings on inspiration, reflection and pro-social behaviour by PhD student Shazza Ali.

Most of us enjoy watching television of some kind or another. Whether it’s a daily game show or soap opera, a weekly documentary or a film at the weekends, we often develop emotions towards the people on our screens. After watching a good film, we may leave the cinema feeling uplifted or inspired as a result of what we have just seen.

Johanna Shapiro and Lloyd Rucker from the University of California investigated the aftermath of viewing positive characters in the media. They noted that the ‘heroes’ on our screens are usually portrayed as displaying good behaviour which leads to ideal consequences.  As a result, viewers enjoy watching these characters, and tend to identify with them – an effect that Shapiro and Rucker termed the ‘Don Quixote’ effect.

Although we often admire the actions of those on screen, the inspiration that they elicit in us doesn’t tend to last forever. Shapiro and Rucker suggested that this is because over time, we realise that our lives are quite different from the lives of the characters, and so we begin to consider them as less suitable role models than we once thought. However, in order for us to prolong the positive feelings that we get from exposure to inspirational role models, we need to take some time to reflect on our emotions, thoughts and feelings.

With this in mind, Tom Farsides, Danelle Pettman and Louise Tourle, a research team at the University of Sussex, investigated how we react to different types of characters in the media and how we can hold on to, and make use of, the good feelings that they evoke in us. Farsides and his colleagues did this by showing sixth form pupils a clip of an inspirational, empathetic teacher telling students that they should ‘seize the day’ or a clip of a teacher talking about the academic curriculum. After viewing the clip, some students did a reflection activity and some did not. During the reflection task, students were asked to think about the teacher’s behaviour, their own behaviour, things that hold them back from acting like the inspiring teacher and how they could overcome these hurdles.

The results showed that students who watched the inspiring video followed by the reflection task, wanted to behave in more positive ways than the students who did the reflection task after the non-inspiring video. What’s more, there was no difference in the desire to engage in positive behaviour between those that watched just the inspiring or non-inspiring video, without the reflection activity.

To further explore this, Farsides and his team conducted another study with medical students. In this study, trainee doctors watched inspiring scenes from popular TV medical dramas such ER and Patch Adams. Half of the participants were asked to think about what they had seen and how they could be like the characters (personal significance of the scene) and half were asked to think about what they had seen but not in relation to themselves (professional significance of the scene). The results showed that engaging in personal reflection led to increased feelings of empathy, and the desire to emulate the behaviour of the inspirational characters.

These studies show that exposure to inspirational characters can remind us of what behaviour is possible and desirable. However, it is thinking about the person who inspired us, the similarities and differences between us and them, and how to overcome these discrepancies, which motivates us to actively model their behaviour. Although this research highlights the Don Quixote effect in response to characters in the media, it emphasises the potential of the arts in provoking powerful emotions and influencing behaviour.

So the next time that you feel inspired, uplifted or moved by characters in TV shows, books, plays, or even people that you encounter on a day-to-day basis, try to take some time to consider and acknowledge why you feel the way that you do, where the feeling comes from, what it inspires you to want to do, and how to make it happen…


Farsides, T., Pettman, D., & Tourle, L. (2013). Inspiring altruism: reflecting on the personal relevance of emotionally evocative prosocial media characters. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(11), 2251-2258.

Shapiro, J., & Rucker, L. (2004). The Don Quixote effect: Why going to the movies can help develop empathy and altruism in medical students and residents. Families, Systems, & Health, 22(4), 445-452.

If you liked this research article, then you will like the research article Feeling elevated? By Julie Van de Vyver and our Role Models resource for schools entitled Hunting for Treasure both available to download in the resources section of this website.


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