A sizable body of research has emerged over the past 30 years examining the role that justification for aggression may play in the enjoyment of drama. For the most part, this research has suggested that audiences enjoy seeing good characters rewarded and bad characters punished, whereas images of good characters receiving undue punishment or bad characters receiving benefits are met largely with repugnance (Zillmann, 2000). Research has also shown that these factors may play a role in attitudes toward and empathy for the characters in question. For example, Zillmann and Bryant (1975) found that even disliked characters are met with a certain degree of empathy if they receive punishment that exceeds some sort of predetermined range of acceptable retribution.
Although these studies contribute greatly to the understanding of audience enjoyment and response to violence, two issues are apparent. First, notions regarding the circumstances that distinguish "just" and "unjust" actions have always been operationally defined in terms of varying degrees of retribution severity. The possibility of the same act being judged just or unjust depending on dispositional and motivational characteristics surrounding the exchange has gone largely unexplored. Instead, over-retributive and under-retributive sanctions have been seen invariably as unjust. Second, these studies have paid little attention to the likelihood that attitudes toward and empathy for victims may be contingent upon attitudes toward the perpetrator and perceptions of the motive for aggression. To that end, the current study attempts to explore the manner in which incongruity between the dispositional features linked to perpetrators and motives for their violence can influence both subsequent enjoyment of narratives and attitudes toward victims and perpetrators.
Perceptions of Justified Violence
Kohlberg (1958) posited that at basic levels of moral deliberation, perceptions of justice are contingent upon evaluations of whether an act of aggressive reprisal is strictly equal to the provoking act. For young children, these simple determinations can be superseded by the evaluation of some authority figure (e.g., "it's wrong because my mom said so"). In later stages of cognitive development, the essential feature of justification becomes the notion of strict equivalence. An act of violent reprisal is just if its inherent qualities are equivalent to the violence that preceded it, and unjust if violence in the reprisal falls below or exceeds the initiating violent act.
However, in more complicated judgment circumstances, Kohlberg maintained that justice appraisals are moderated by consideration of the actors involved and an appraisal of the context surrounding the exchange. Moral appraisals are therefore based on "strict equality and literal reciprocity are modified by reference to shared norms or to motives that indicate a good or bad person or deservingness" (Colby & Kohlberg, 1987, p. 27). Among adults, moral judgment is made based on the evaluation of whether or not an act falls within a range of behaviors considered equitable given the provocation. This appraisal is then moderated by the observer's disposition toward the participants involved and perceptions of their motives for the provoking and retaliatory acts.
Justified Violence and Latitude of Moral Sanctions. Zillmann's (2000) moral-sanction theory of delight and repugnance distinguished the more deliberate process of forming "moral judgments" from less contemplative "moral sanctions." Whereas moral judgment can be characterized by comparatively formal thought processes which may prescribe specific rewards and punishments for particular acts, moral sanctions are thought of more simply as a "readiness to accept, in moral terms," the observed outcomes of events (Zillmann, 2000, p. 59). In this sense, moral sanctions include any and all behaviors one is ready to accept. Thus, instead of a clear-cut judgment of an act's morality based on its deviating from specific retribution called for by an exacting moral code, the comparatively impulsive "readiness to accept" nature of moral-sanction appraisals allows for broader latitude in determining which acts are deemed morally acceptable or justified. Understood this way, the perception of justified violence can be conceptually defined as an appraisal of violent retribution based on its relationship to the normatively determined range of retribution acts an individual deems morally acceptable---or one's "latitude of moral sanction" for violent reprisal (Zillmann, 2000, p. 59). Raney and Bryant (2002) trace this approach to understanding justice in terms of a range of acts that are deemed morally acceptable to work on Balance Theory (Heider, 1958).
Cognitive Consistency, Justice, and Latitude-of-Moral-Sanction. Heider (1958) argued that humans prefer situations in which relative harmony exists between their feelings toward an object (i.e., person or event) and circumstances surrounding the object--a condition called "cognitive consistency" (p. 201). Disharmony is an unpleasant state that motivates people to act in ways that restore cognitive consistency by producing circumstances consistent with their disposition, or a disposition consistent with the situation. For example, people hearing a message with which they strongly disagree from somebody whom they respect may attribute more credibility toward the message in order to create harmony between their perceptions of the message source and the events under consideration. Similarly, they may change their attitude toward the speaker to consider him/her less credible.
Heider explicated justice in terms of the cognitive consistency between one's thoughts about observed events and people involved in the events. Justice is perceived when there is a match between the outcome of events observed and the latitude of events considered appropriate by the observer given the person and the circumstances involved. In terms that foreshadow Zillmann's (2000) discussion of disposition's role in forming moral sanctions, Heider (1958) argued that, on the whole, harmony and perceived justice occur when observers see reward, happiness, and fortune fall upon those who are judged as "good," and correspondingly when ill fortune, punishment, and discord fall upon those who are judged as "evil." If any of these outcomes were observed, they would fall within the observer's latitude of appropriate outcomes and be experienced as harmonious states. Such harmonious states are seen as instances of justice, and disharmonious states are considered unjustified.
Raney and Bryant (2002) applied logic from work on cognitive consistency and latitudes of moral sanction to their theoretical model of moral judgment in crime-drama enjoyment. They asserted that the evaluation of crime drama is based on observation of a "justice sequence" (p. 404) comprised of some act of provocation and subsequent retribution. Each person views a justice sequence with an idea of appropriate retribution defined by the range of behaviors falling within their "latitude of moral sanction" (p. 411). This range is based on consideration of audience inputs (individual differences in readiness to accept) and message inputs (content related to provocation and reprisal). According to the model, the degree to which message inputs are consistent with audience inputs will affect appraisal of reprisal as just or unjust. When the level of violence contained in the act of reprisal falls within the latitude of moral sanction that results from the combination of message and audience inputs, viewers will appraise the reprisal as justified and enjoy the observed violence.
Raney and Bryant's (2002) discussion of audience and message inputs that influence viewer perceptions of the justice sequence pointed to factors that moderate perceptions of justified violence, a position consistent with the definition of justified violence adopted for use here. Raney (2004) further argued that the formation of dispositions often results from heuristic judgments of characters as good or bad before moral appraisal of their behavior occurs. In other words, viewers often evaluate the appropriateness of behavior using frames based on preexisting dispositions toward the perpetrator or victim.
In submitting that perception of justified violence is best understood as the range in levels of violence one is ready to accept as moral, the current study maintains that one's readiness-to-accept is moderated by critical audience and message factors: the audience member's disposition toward perpetrator and victim, and the motivations for retribution made implicit by the message. Although reasoning from Zillmann's (2000) moral-sanction theory along with Raney and Bryant's (2002) model of moral judgment suggest that perpetrator motive, along with disposition toward perpetrator and victim should influence audience reactions to violent reprisal, neither theory nor logic provide a clear prediction about their combined influence. Disposition-based research would suggest that even beyond dispositional concerns, viewers will only enjoy witnessing violent acts if the extent of the violence meets some level considered appropriate given the events that surround the act (Zillmann & Bryant, 1975; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977). Audiences for the most part enjoy seeing fair and due punishment to those who deserve it. Likewise, audiences are likely to express liking or disliking of perceived violent perpetrators and victims based on the degree to which they perceive the act as just.
The logic underlying thought in this area is supported in research conducted by Zillmann and Bryant (1975). In this study, children at different stages of cognitive...