Story Liking and Moral Resolution
Paul E. Jose
I am a developmental psychologist who studies how children read and understand stories, with a particular emphasis upon story liking. I will describe how children grow to understand and appreciate moral resolution in stories; in other words, how they acquire the ability to judge whether a story ending is morally satisfying. My major point is that appreciation of moral resolution is something that develops over the lifespan: a child, teenager, or adult understands a particular story resolution if he or she possesses the necessary cognitive sophistication combined with experience with texts of similar and different genres. I will focus on children's reactions in this chapter.
In the early 1980s, William Brewer and I were interested in examining how grade-school children identified with story characters in suspense stories. I wrote some short stories that varied a number of dimensions which we felt would affect children's identification and liking for these stories. Among these dimensions were character valence and outcome valence. In our stones, we crossed these two dimensions so that some stories had a good character who received a positive outcome, a good character who received a negative outcome, a bad character who received a positive outcome, and a bad character who received a negative outcome. We predicted that children would like stories in these two cells in the design: good-positive and bad-negative. We predicted they would dislike stories in the other two cells. This prediction derives from what we in psychology refer to as the "belief in a just world." Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, has explained that the overwhelming majority of people in this culture prefer these outcomes. In other words, if good people get rewarded and bad people get punished, then we live in a satisfying and orderly world. We are upset by disconfirmations of this expectation--for example, when innocent people die in a plane crash, or when a Nazi war criminal remains at large.