In this study, we aimed to determine what makes readers consider a story to be good or bad, and how people differ in this respect. We found that adjectives used in previous studies (e.g., Knoop et al., 2016) tapped into distinguishable components of literature appreciation, that we labeled interest, sadness, suspense, amusement and beauty. Four out of five of these components (i.e., interest, suspense, amusement, beauty) were significantly positively associated with the general question regarding how much participants liked the story. However, interest and beauty were more strongly associated with story liking than the other components (i.e., suspense and amusement). Additionally, although sadness was on average not associated with liking, here we found individual variation as well, with some participants showing a positive association between sadness and liking, and some participants a negative association. When looking at individual slopes per participant, we discovered substantial variation in the associations between the five components and story liking on the individual level, suggesting that there might be distinct patterns of relative associations between these components and story liking.

Individual Differences in the Routes to Appreciation

We found that the individual slopes between the components on the one hand, and liking on the other hand, were weakly to moderately correlated. For some sets of components these slopes were positively related to each other, whereas for other sets of components these slopes were negatively related to each other. These different contributions showed patterns across participants. For example, in readers for whom interest plays a relatively large role in how much they like a story, sadness will generally play a relatively weak role. This suggests that readers differ in what drives them to positively evaluate stories.

When we look at the individual variation in the associations between specific components and liking, we see that this association can be strong in some readers, but weak or even negative in other readers. This raises the question whether the assessed components of appreciation capture all reasons people like stories, or that there are other elements that also play into evaluations of stories. One likely possibility is that more cognitive (rather than affective) routes of aesthetic processing, such as foregrounding or stylistic elements in stories, contribute to the evaluation of literary story as well, and perhaps even more strongly in readers who respond weakly or negatively to the components assessed here.

Looking at the individual variation in the association between sadness and liking specifically, we found that readers differed in how negative emotions were related to their evaluations of stories. In some readers, negative emotions (sadness) in response to stories lead them to like those stories more, whereas for others negative emotions in response to stories lead to a decrease in liking. The association between negative emotions and liking is reminiscent of the phenomenon of mixed emotions in literary reading: It is possible to feel sadness (often experienced as a negative, unappreciated emotion), but perceive this as an enjoyable experience, for example in “bittersweet” situations (e.g., Larsen & McGraw, 2011; Oceja & Carrera, 2009; Schimmack, 2001). An example of mixed emotions in response to fiction can be found in the work by Hanich and colleagues (2014), which showed that in the context of film, experienced sadness (considered to be a negative emotion) is strongly positively correlated to enjoyment (a positive evaluation). The authors subsequently hypothesized that the correlation between sadness and enjoyment may not be a direct relationship, but may rather be mediated by the feeling of “being moved”. To elaborate, stories may elicit a feeling of sadness, which in turn contributes to the feeling of being moved, which is evaluated as a positive feeling. This way sadness can positively contribute to enjoyment, but only if this sadness results in or is interpreted as a feeling of being moved.

The paradoxical relationship between negative emotions and enjoyment is elaborated on by Menninghaus and colleagues (2017) in the Distancing-Embracing model. They state that the exceptional quality of art in being capable of leading to enjoyment through negative emotion lies in the processes of distancing and embracing. In this model, distancing refers to the sense of control art viewers feel when interacting with negatively valenced art: Viewers are aware that they can step away and stop looking as soon as they experience too many negative emotions due to the art work. This way they are confident they can distance themselves from these negative feelings before getting overwhelmed. Because of this process of distancing, art viewers can ultimately embrace an art work and the negative emotions associated with it. This might be through a feeling of being moved, or due to a process of cognitive dissonance resolution. A viewer may implicitly reason: This piece of art is eliciting negative emotions, and yet I am choosing to look at it, therefore I must like it. This way, in the aesthetic appreciation of art and literature, negative and positive emotions can both contribute to a positive evaluation of the object in question.

Indeed, as mentioned above, we found readers who displayed positive associations between (negative) emotions and liking, indicating that the processes of distancing and embracing when dealing with mixed emotions might influence “story liking” in some readers. However, there are also quite some readers who show a negative association between negative emotion in response to stories and liking, or are indifferent to negative emotion. The processes of distancing and embracing, and the phenomenon of mixed emotions therefore do not seem to manifest themselves equally in all readers.

Interestingly, individual variation in the relationships between the appreciation components and liking was not related to the experiential process of story world absorption (which conceptually differs from aesthetic experiencesFootnote 6) or to measures of daily life reading habits and print exposure. Although readers varied with respect to the relationship between aesthetic experiences and story liking, this did not translate to other measures often used in reading research (i.e., story world absorption, reading habits, print exposure). Apparently, aesthetic experiences are not directly associated with absorption, reading habits and print exposure, and they should not be used to make predictions about one another.

Cognitive and Affective Routes to Aesthetic Appreciation

As elaborated on in the introduction, there are several theories and models of aesthetic appreciation that highlight the different routes to appreciation (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2016; Jacobs, 2015a; Leder et al., 2004). Both affective (e.g., emotions elicited by a narrative) and cognitive (e.g., being intellectually challenged by a narrative) processing can contribute to the evaluation of a narrative. These different processing styles can interact in readers (or readers may prefer one style over the other), leading to different evaluations of the same narratives by different readers. In our study we find that, indeed, interaction between styles occurs in at least some readers, as both affective (e.g., sadness, amusement) and cognitive (e.g., interest) processes can be associated with general liking scores in one reader.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

It is important to note that the five components of appreciation measured in this paper, although a good start when it comes to measuring appreciation more comprehensively, will not be the only contributors to a reader’s eventual evaluation. Especially the cognitive elements of aesthetic appreciation (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2016; Jacobs, 2015a; Leder et al., 2004) were not sufficiently captured in the adjectives derived from the study by Knoop and colleagues (2016) and may contribute to liking just as much as the components studied here (or perhaps even more strongly in readers who display low associations between the five components as measured in the current study and liking).

To address these limitations, it thus seems important that the cognitive processes involved in appreciation are investigated more thoroughly in future research. For example, the degree to which a story is experienced as intellectually challenging or stylistically striking is not captured in the adjectives used in the current study. In this context, the judgment of beauty should receive special attention. As we simply asked participants to rate the stories for being beautiful, without defining beauty as either stylistic or emotional beauty, we cannot tell what participants’ spontaneous criteria were when deciding on a rating for beauty (and thus whether this rating reflected a cognitive or emotional aesthetic process).

When studying individual variation in routes to appreciation, we can distinguish two sub-questions. In the current study, we have investigated how participants vary in their routes to liking. We have seen that aesthetic processes can be positively associated with liking in some participants, and negatively associated with liking in other participants. An open question with regard to the individual variation between readers as found in our analyses is why readers vary in their routes to liking. Leder and colleagues (2014) state that level of expertize is an important factor determining whether someone will prefer a cognitive processing style over an affective processing style. Therefore, we hypothesized that reading habits or print exposure would be associated with the individual variation between readers. However, in our results there is no indication that the differences between readers are due to their expertize, despite substantial variation in our sample. Both reading habits and print exposure could not sufficiently explain the differences between readers in the relationships between the components and liking.

Further exploration of the variation between readers could perhaps shine a light on different types of readers that may react differently to aesthetic experiences. For example, it would be interesting to answer the question whether there are mainly cognitively driven (i.e., distanced) or mainly affectively driven (i.e., identifying) readers, as well as readers who are somewhere in between (Riddell & van Dalen-Oskam, 2018). In a future experiment studying why participants differ in their routes to liking, it would be interesting to let participants read and rate a larger number of texts (perhaps also including texts of different genres). This would also address an important limitation of the current study: As the data in our study were not sampled across genres (and participants each read only 2–4 stories), we cannot generalize across genres. Therefore, no conclusions about genre differences could be made based on these data. A future study in which the stories are thoroughly sampled for genre differences would help shed light on any story or genre differences.

Pinpointing how and why readers vary in their routes to liking could in the future perhaps also help directing individuals to books or stories that they will like, through the use of recommender systems: for example, readers that enjoy sad stories (or who have characteristics that are associated with enjoying sad stories) could be recommended to read books liked by similar readers, whereas readers who prefer amusing stories would receive different recommendations (e.g., Faridani et al., 2017). This could result in more enjoyable reading experiences, which has been associated with a higher inclination to read again (Mol & Jolles, 2014), which in turn has been positively associated with school success (Chiu & McBride-Chang, 2006; Mol & Jolles, 2014; Retelsdorf et al., 2011) second language learning (Lao & Krashen, 2000; Lee et al., 2015; Yamashita, 2008), and social cognition and empathy (Fong et al., 2013; Johnson et al., 2013; Mar & Oatley, 2008; Oatley, 2016).


Looking at the findings from this study, it is important to note that, while we do not contest the merit of any theoretical model of appreciation, there is a danger of “overfitting” these models to an “idealized reader.” We show that readers can have strikingly different reasons for indicating that they like a story or not. As a consequence, a simple question about the “liking” of a particular story will not inform us about the variation in the reading experiences that readers have. Our findings have illustrated how these individual differences contribute to evaluations, and have provided an example of how these differences could be quantitatively and empirically tested. This work might therefore motivate future empirical approaches to establishing individual differences in appreciation to get to a deeper understanding of what it means to “like” a story.

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