You might think your TV watching is a solitary act, but depending on the type of show, you could actually be learning about how to treat other people.
According to a recent study of about 100 college students, some TV shows help viewers to become kinder and more generous toward people who are different from them -- even if the show itself doesn't directly address diversity.
"After viewing meaningful entertainment, as opposed to more humorous entertainment, people were more likely to help in general, but also they were more likely to help someone who was different from them,” explained Erica Bailey, a mass communications doctoral student at Penn State and lead author of the study.
By “meaningful entertainment,” Bailey means TV shows that depict something she calls “moral beauty," such as acts of charity, generosity and self-sacrifice.
For the study, she divided 106 participants, who were mostly young white college students, into two groups. Both groups saw a clip from the canceled FX show “Rescue Me,” about a firefighter named Tommy and his life in New York.
The control group watch a funny clip of the firefighters playing pranks on each other, while the intervention group watched a clip in which Tommy struggled with flashbacks to the 9/11 terrorist attacks while going through a divorce.
This is just one part of a 13-minute clip that Bailey showed the intervention group:
After watching the clips, the 106 participants filled out a mandatory questionnaire. They were also asked if they happened to have time to help another (fictional) researcher do a separate, unrelated study. This fiction researcher was presented as either a young white researcher from their own university, or an older black researcher from a rival university.
Participants who had watched the “meaningful” clip of Tommy grappling with his 9/11 memories and divorce were more likely to help the white researcher with the extra study, Bailey explained. They were also more likely to help the older, black researcher who was different from them.
How TV expands our capacity for empathy
Bailey's research confirms previous studies that find TV can influence good behavior and even increase empathy toward people who are different from us. One recent study found that "highbrow" dramas appear to boost viewers’ emotional intelligence scores after watching.
Past research has found that diverse television can have a direct impact on its viewers. For example, some research has found that gay characters on TV helped viewers feel less prejudice toward the gay community. While there isn't much research on the psychological effect of racially diverse television, one UCLA study found that shows with more diverse casts -- and writing rooms -- had higher ratings. And an Indiana University study found that a lack of diversity affected the self-esteem of preteen girls and black preteens of both genders.
Bailey says that her research contributes important information about how TV can influence altruistic behavior toward people who are different from the TV viewer.
"Media are able to make us feel more connected to humanity in general, and I think that’s cool," Bailey concluded.
The study, co-authored by Bartosz Wojdynski at the University of Georgia, was published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. Bailey hopes in future research to be able to understand why TV clips showing “moral beauty” seemed to elicit an altruistic response in viewers.
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