Four TV Shows Scientifically Proven to Make You More Emotionally Intelligent

Tuesday, 06 October 2015 - 4:34PM
Science News
Neuroscience
Tuesday, 06 October 2015 - 4:34PM
Four TV Shows Scientifically Proven to Make You More Emotionally Intelligent

It's long been theorized that consuming certain types of fiction makes a person more empathetic; for example, a recent study showed that Harry Potter's themes of prejudice versus tolerance actually taught children to be more tolerant. But most of these studies examined written literature, while very little scholarship has been done about television or film. In a new study, researchers found that watching award-winning television shows increased viewers' emotional intelligence, which is closely related to empathy.

The study, called "Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind," recruited 100 participants to watch either a highly regarded fictional show or a non-fiction show prior to an emotional intelligence test. One group watched either Mad Men or The West Wing, while the other group watched either How the Universe Works or Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back. The subjects then took a test that psychologists use to measure emotional intelligence, in which they identified the emotions exuded by pictures of human eyes. The test was then repeated using different pairs of shows (Lost and The Good Wife versus Nova and Through the Wormhole), and adding a control group who didn't watch anything. In both experiments, the subjects performed higher on the test after watching the fictional television shows.

Opening quote
"In both studies, participants who viewed a TV drama performed significantly higher on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test than did those who viewed a documentary," the authors wrote in their paper. "These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives, may facilitate the understanding of others' minds."
Closing quote

The experiment is based on a similar study that tested the same hypothesis with literary fiction. In that case, the researchers asserted that literary fiction would encourage empathy in readers more than other types of fiction, primarily because the subtle and complex narratives required readers to think deeply in order to glean the emotions the characters were feeling. Rather than having the characters' thoughts and feelings spelled out for them, the readers are encouraged to see the events from the characters' perspectives.

This all sounds plausible to me, for both literary fiction and high-brow dramas. I can easily imagine that an emotionally nuanced show like Mad Men or The Good Wife would foster more emotional intelligence than, say, One Tree Hill or The Secret Life of the American Teenager, in which everyone just says what they're feeling all the time. But the study is a little flawed in proving that hypothesis; first, it adds unnecessary variables to have the participants watch non-fiction shows, so the results for the control group would be much more compelling. And, more importantly, these "award-winning" shows are never compared to other fictional shows, so there's no actual evidence that the quality of the fiction matters (although I'm sure it does). But the very least, it shows that consuming fiction increases emotional intelligence, which is as much justification as we ever needed for our Netflix binge sessions.

Via New York Magazine.

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