How TV Influences Our Emotions

A AW

Good news for anyone who feels guilty about binge-watching box sets! Watching TV dramas can boost your emotional intelligence.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma have discovered that watching well made and well-written high quality fictional shows like Mad Men or Boston Legal can improve our ability to read other’s emotions. In these days of diminishing human interaction, this is welcome news.

TV dramas exercise our minds this way because, to understand the plot, the audience must keep track of the mental states, emotions, relationships and intentions of the characters. So just like reading a good book really! A study published in 2013 in the Journal Science, also found that reading quality fiction, such as the works of Charles Dickens, also boosts emotional intelligence.

For their study, the researchers recruited 100 men and women from a wide social spectrum. One half of the group watched either Mad Men – a fictional series about the advertising industry in 1960s America – or The West Wing – a fictional series about U.S. politics.

The researchers chose those particular dramas because they had both been nominated for, or had won Emmy Awards, in ‘recognition of the quality and complexity of their narratives.’ The other half of the group watched either a Discovery Channel documentary about sharks or a Science Channel documentary about the Sun.

The participants were then given a Theory of Mind test, which measures a person’s awareness of, and ability to interpret, the mental states and emotions of others. This involved looking at images of eyes and matching them with the correct emotion the person was experiencing, such as pleasure, envy or panic.

Those who watched the dramas performed significantly better than those who watched the documentaries. Without knowing what the people in a story are thinking, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to follow the plot.

Although documentary-style TV may require that the audience follow the narrator’s train of thought and reasoning, these are more usually spelled out when the purpose of the presentation is to inform. With fiction, on the other hand, part of the pleasure of viewing is derived more from guessing and second-guessing the intentions of the protagonists.

A second experiment was carried out with another group of volunteers, but this time they watched either a drama or a documentary. A control group watched no TV at all. Again, viewers of the dramas scored higher than those who watched the documentaries. Not only that, but the viewers of the documentaries failed to score significantly higher than those in the control group.

So, well-written and intelligent drama wins the day. But it still doesn’t exercise the imagination in the same way a well-written book can – with the book, everything is left to the imagination and that stimulates not just our emotional intelligence, but our creativity too.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.