“Sesame Street” is educational television at its finest, but what about “Lost”?
New research from the University of Oklahoma suggests that just by watching well-crafted TV, we may learn how to be more considerate of others’ feelings.
In psychology, the telepathy that happens when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes is known as “theory of mind.”
Through facial cues and body language, humans can pick up on how others are feeling and react accordingly.
When you see a mother beaming at her newborn or a guy flipping off someone in traffic, there’s no question how each of them feels.
It’s possible that people don’t even need to be real for our theory of mind to improve.
In the study, participants watched either an episode of a popular TV drama (including “Mad Men” and “The West Wing”) or a TV documentary (“Shark Week” and “How the Universe Works”).
Then they completed a task that required them to flex their mind-reading abilities, looking at 36 images of people’s eyes and trying to figure out what emotion the person was expressing: jealousy, panic, arrogance, or hate.
The people who watched the fictional shows greatly outperformed those who had watched the documentaries. “These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives,” the researchers conclude, “may facilitate the understanding of others’ minds.”
There are still plenty of questions about what other kinds of stories might affect theory of mind.
The documentaries tested weren’t stories about people, while the TV dramas were. (Documentaries about people could potentially have the same effect.) And while the researchers tested particularly well-regarded television shows to evaluate the effect of narrative, they didn’t compare them to trashy television or soap operas, which could potentially also prime viewers to pick up on others’ emotions.
Research on the real-life benefits of fiction isn’t new. In 2013, researchers showed that reading fiction could help boost people’s theory of mind. Several months later, a study came out suggesting that couples could use movies as discussion points to better understand their own problems.
The guiding principle is that stories don’t need to be true for us to draw meaning from them. Our theory of mind lets us creep into Don Draper’s head just as easily as the guy flipping off his fellow commuter.
So the next time you start to feel guilty for wasting a Saturday binging on Netflix, consider the lessons you may be subconsciously learning.
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