Under the Hood

Watching 'Mad Men' Or 'The Good Wife' May Be Good For You: How TV Dramas Increase Emotional Intelligence

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Watching TV dramas may help your ability to read someone's emotions. amira_a, CC BY 2.0.

It's not always easy reading someone else's emotions: If they're a closed book or can put on a good front, it can be difficult to tell whether emissions of “I'm fine” are actually true. But if you're looking to improve how you decipher other people's emotions, look no further than your Netflix account. That's right, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that watching high quality television dramas, like Mad Men or The West Wing, can improve your emotional intelligence.

Conducted by University of Oklahoma psychologists Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes, the new study built upon 2013 research that found reading literary fiction makes us more emotionally in-tune with those around us. According to the researchers of that study, our favorite fiction novels could foster “the ability to interpret the mental states and emotions of others,” a process that psychologists call “theory of mind.” Black and Barnes believed that television, which gives us a more visual representation of emotion, could do the same.

To test their theory, they conducted two experiments: In one, 100 college students were recruited and randomly assigned to watch part of an award-winning drama (Mad Men or The West Wing) or a documentary (How the Universe Works or Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back). After watching the clip, researchers then administered the "reading the mind in the eyes" test, which was also used in the 2013 experiments. This test involves participants studying 36 pairs of eyes and choosing one of four words that best identified the emotions of the person in the picture: jealous, panicked, arrogant, or hateful.

Overall, they found that women were more likely to identify the correct emotions, but both sexes had higher scores on the test if they were exposed to the TV drama as opposed to those exposed to the documentary. 

In the second experiment, the researchers assigned participants (increased to 116) to watch either a full-episode of a TV drama (The Good Wife or Lost) or critically-acclaimed documentaries (Is Time Travel Possible? or Colosseum: Roman Death Trap). A third control group of 60 people did not watch anything; then, all three groups were also given the eyes test. 

Once more, the researchers observed that those who watched TV dramas instead of documentaries scored higher overall on the test. Interestingly enough, those watching the documentaries did not score much higher than those who did not watch any television program. Also fascinating was the fact that the size of the effect, though not large, mimicked the results of the 2013 study almost exactly. As a result, researchers concluded that watching a TV drama could have the same effect on emotional processing that reading literary fiction does.

But, Black and Barnes note, there is still more research to be done. Could these results possibly extend to quality comedy programs? Is there something to be learned from strongly episodic television shows, like House or epic fantasies like Game of Thrones?

Researchers are still unsure, but at the very least their study lessens the guilt of spending a Friday night with Netflix.

Source: Black J, Barnes J. Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and Arts. 2015. 

Comer Kidd D, Castano E. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013. 

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