Carnegie Mellon University

Exploring the Effects of Realism on Arousal and Rhetorical Representation

Author: Joseph Petraglia
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1991

By most accounts, what Gardner (1984) has termed the "cognitive revolution" has been a great success, and many in rhetoric and writing have felt themselves to be major beneficiaries. A degree of dissatisfaction with the perceived artificiality of cognitivist models of problem-solving has set in, however, and a group of psychologists, educators, and instructional technologists have begun addressing this discontent by calling for fuller, more realistic (i.e., "situated") instruction.

Even though we are moving towards greater realism and contextualization in education, we remain largely ignorant of an aspect of social reality that rhetoricians have long viewed as central to argument and persuasion: the affective dimension of social situations. To bring the issue of affect to bear on research in rhetorical cognition, I explored the ways in which varying levels of realism affect one's arousal state and subsequent representation of an argument. For this study, an interactive videodisc on euthanasia was reprogrammed to create three "realism conditions"--low realism, intermediate realism, and high realism. This was done by manipulating the disc's (1) narrative basis in reality (i.e., subjects in the low realism condition were told that the case depicted was a dramatization, those in the intermediate condition were told it was a documentary) and (2) graphic content (i.e., in the high realism version, two minutes of footage depicting the central character's burn treatment were shown). Sixty subjects (all college freshmen) were randomly assigned to the three versions of the videodisc.

Working through the interactive videodisc, subjects were asked questions to gauged their arousal condition and their representation of the issues at stake in the videodisc. The results of the study demonstrated that although shifts in arousal states were not detected by my measure of arousal, the realism conditions did create signficiant differences in subjects' representation of the euthanasia case as seen by subjects' selection of information and sub-issues as salient. Subjects in the high condition were more "partisan" in their representation of the case than subjects in the intermediate condition, and much more partisan that subjects in the low condition.

These findings suggest two principal implications. First, there may be a trade-off for educators in the "applied humanities" (i.e., writing, critical thinking, speech, etc.) between two longstanding pedagogical values: objectivity and realism. With an increased perception of a task's reality may come the kind of commitment and values-instantiation that makes detached and disinterested reasoning less likely. Second, the research leads me to propose a model of "rhetorical task reality" by which issues of affect can be brought to bear on future research into rhetorical cognition.