The holiday season is a time for shopping, snow, log fires, and festive romantic comedies. Needless to say, most of us have seen Love Actually a handful of times (this season), and are smitten by rom-com god Hugh Grant's blue eyes and quirky sense of humor. Psychologists at the University of Buffalo suggest frequently indulging in these cheesy and predictable storylines could actually make us better people.

“Repeated exposure to romantic films led to increases in sensitivity for four of the five moral intuitions,” wrote the research team, led by Matthew Grizzard of the University at Buffalo–State University of New York.

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The concept of "moral intuitions" derives from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and intends to explain the origins of, and variation in, human morality. In the study, published in the journal Media Psychology, the five moral intuitions included: Harm/care (aversion to the suffering of others); fairness; loyalty; respect for authority; and purity (both biological and metaphorical).

Grizzard and his colleagues sought to determine how repeated exposure to specific film genres like rom-coms would affect sensitivity to each of these ethical impulses. A total of 87 university students were asked to watch a double bill of movies each week for five weeks. The participants were divided into four categories: a quarter exclusively watched rom-coms; another quarter only saw action movies; while the rest were watching either a 60/40 or 80/20 ratio of rom-com to action films. As a means to reduce the effect of novelty, the movies were all at least 15 years old, and received similar levels of critical acclaim.

Prior to the study, and at the end, participants filled out the 30-item Moral Foundations Questionnaire, where they expressed their level of agreement with statements such as “Justice is the most important requirement for a society” and “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong.” The researchers also asked them to note how relevant certain factors were to what they perceived as right and wrong, including showing a lack of respect or denying someone's rights.

The findings revealed the group that exclusively watched romantic comedies was more sensitive to four out of the five moral intuitions, excluding purity. However. this was not true for any of the other participants, which suggests the sensitivity influence of rom-coms was negated by brutal action movies. It remains unclear how rom-coms would influence attitudes regarding other types of morality, considering these movies predominantly feature love, romance, and emotional support.

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The researchers were surprised at the results; they were expecting different genres would sensitize people to different moral principles.

Rom-coms may refine our ethical sensitivity, but they can also ruin relationships. In January, researchers at the University of Michigan found love movies could have some dangerous implications when it comes to real women and stalking. Watching rom-coms could romanticize a man’s “persistent pursuit” of a woman, and therefore, make women more likely to tolerate stalking in real life.

“[Such movies] can encourage women to discount their instincts,” Julia Lippman, a professor at the University of Michigan, told Canada’s Global News. “This is a problem because research shows that instincts can serve as powerful cues to help keep us safe.”

The emotional roller coasters that are rom-coms can make us more sensitive, but also more naive.

Although some of us would be ok if Hugh Grant showed up on our doorstep in front of our family on Christmas, it's better to take rom-coms like most things in life — with a grain of salt.

See Also:

Watching Movies Cuts Divorce Rate In Half

This Is Your Brain On Porn

Source: Grizzard M, Shaw AZ, Dolan EA et al. Does Repeated Exposure to Popular Media Strengthen Moral Intuitions?: Exploratory Evidence Regarding Consistent and Conflicted Moral Content. Media Psychology. 2016.