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How watching TV could make you a better person (but it all depends on the show)

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To everyone who ever felt guilty spending their evenings and weekends knee-deep in Netflix: breathe a sigh of relief, because you are probably a really lovely and caring person as a result of your TV addiction.

According to a study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, watching high-brow television dramas can serve to increase your emotional intelligence and ability to empathise with others.

The research, from the University of Oklahoma, suggests that watching these programmes can make us more receptive to the feelings of others. 

But – caveat – it all depends on what you watch.

Researchers divided participants into groups, whereby 100 of them watched either an episode of a popular TV drama – Mad Men or The West Wing –  or a TV documentary – Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back or How the Universe Works.

After viewing the programmes, the groups were then asked to complete a task to measure emotional intelligence, in which they looked at 36 images of people’s eyes and attempted to determine what emotion that person was expressing. Options included jealousy, panic, arrogance and hate.

mad men

Watching Mad Men could make you more receptive to the emotions of others

The results showed that the group who had watched the fictional dramas outperformed those who had watched the documentaries, better gauging the emotions in the photographs.

Afterwards, they re-tested the groups using new programmes, with The Good Wife as the drama and Nova or Through the Wormhole as the documentary– and also added a third group of participants as a control group, who had watched no television before completing the emotional intelligence test.

As with the first test, the results showed the group who had watched the dramas had higher empathy scores. Additionally, the group who had watched the non-fiction programme performed higher, on average, than those who had not watched any television prior to the test.

"These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives may facilitate the understanding of others' minds," say the researchers.

By watching the programmes and following the stories of the individual characters, viewers were able to put themselves into the story line, thus advancing their emotional capabilities. When they then viewed the images, they were more able to read the emotions of others, take cues from the facial expressions they saw in the photographs.

shark

A shark documentary will not improve your emotional intelligence

The test revealed similar results to one conducted in 2013 that compared literary fiction with non-fiction.

Authors of both tests argue that complex fictional narratives force viewers to view storylines and situations from multiple perspectives. Additionally, as the emotions of the characters are not explicitly explained in these high-brow dramas, viewers must figure it out for themselves, putting themselves into the story in order to understand how the characters feel.

Despite these results that will no-doubt please the TV addicts amongst us, neither test has entirely considered all television options. They measure neither soap operas nor cartoons in the drama section nor the effect of personal stories or reality TV in the non-fiction section.

So, with that in mind, we await further tests to let us know if watching The Great British Bake-off or Made in Chelsea is aiding us emotionally, too. But we like to think so. 

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