Does Watching Good TV Make You a Better Person?

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If you ever feel vaguely guilty about the vast amounts of television you watch, might I suggest you cling to the findings of this study, published last week in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. In it, the authors claim that watching high-quality television dramas — things like Mad Men or The West Wing — can increase your emotional intelligence. That is, watching good TV makes you more empathetic.

In the paper, the authors describe two experiments that led them to their pro-TV conclusion. In one, they asked about 100 people to first watch either a television drama (Mad Men or The West Wing) or a nonfiction program (How the Universe Works or Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back). Afterward, all of the participants took a test psychologists often use to measure emotional intelligence: They’re shown 36 pairs of eyes and are told to judge the emotion each pair is displaying. The results showed that the people who’d watched the fictionalized shows did better on this test than those who watched the nonfiction ones. 

They tried this again, only switching up the programs (The Good Wife and Lost versus Nova and Through the Wormhole) and adding a control group, too: people who took the eye-reading test without watching any television first. Again, their results showed that the fiction viewers’ empathy scores were superior, though the nonfiction viewers’ scored higher on average than those who hadn’t watched anything beforehand. 

It’s a similar finding to a widely reported 2013 study that claimed that reading literary fiction is linked to better scores on this empathy-measuring test. The authors of that study and this new one argue that a complex fictional narrative forces the reader or viewer to consider a problem from multiple perspectives; further, since not every character’s emotion is explicitly spelled out, the audience must do some mental work to fill in those gaps, making a guess at the inner lives of the character. 

That literary fiction study, however, was also widely critiqued for its methods. Specifically, the fiction the researchers chose for their study was by authors like Louise Erdrich or Anton Chekhov; the nonfiction, on the other hand, was one of three Smithsonian articles, with titles like “How the Potato Changed the World.” I mention this not to speak ill of delicious tubers (I would never do that), but to point out that the nonfiction samples they chose weren’t about people. No wonder the study subjects were better at reading human emotions when they’d just spent some time reading about human emotions. And this new study falls short in a similar manner: Is it really that surprising that people might be in a more empathetic state of mind after trying to figure out what is going on in Don Draper’s head than they would be after watching a Shark Week show? What does that really tell us? 

Maybe not much, but if you’re looking for an excuse to buckle down with some binge-watching now that the weather’s turned, do what you will with this new research.