Watching Highbrow TV May Actually Make You A Better Person

BRB, watching every episode of "Mad Men."

If you're looking for a good excuse to curl up and binge-watch "Mad Men" on Netflix, science has your back. Award-winning TV dramas may help increase emotional intelligence, according to a new study.


Researchers from the University of Oklahoma examined people in two separate experiments. For the first test, they instructed participants to make the ultimate choice by watching either a TV drama ("Mad Men" or "The West Wing") or a nonfiction documentary ("How The Universe Works" or a segment from Discovery's Shark Week).

After watching the show, participants then took a common psychological test that measures emotional intelligence. As part of the assessment, the participants observed 36 pairs of eyes and were asked to judge the depth or level of emotion each pair expressed.

The process was repeated in the second experiment with new volunteers. This time researchers had participants watch "The Good Wife" or "Lost" for a TV drama or "Nova" or "Through the Wormhole" for a nonfiction program. They also added a control group consisting of volunteers who took the assessment without watching any TV.

The study found that people who watched the fictional dramas performed better on the emotional intelligence test compared to those who watched the documentaries or nothing at all. In other words, the results suggest that watching these sort of narratives may lead to more empathy or a better understanding of others.

The findings somewhat mirror previous research conducted on fiction and empathy. A 2013 study found that reading literary fiction may lead to better scores in emotional intelligence. However, the research has been criticized given the literary options were vastly different. As Melissa Dahl at the Science of Us accurately points out, the fiction piece given to participants offered insight into the complexity of humans, while the nonfiction story didn't discuss people at all.

The same could almost be said for the recent television study. Dramas are notorious for diving into human nature (who hasn't felt invested in a character while watching a show like "The Good Wife?"), while the documentaries are less provocative when it comes to human emotions (no offense to Shark Week).

More information is obviously needed before making a definitive judgment on whether or not these avenues totally transform someone's "EQ" -- but it's certainly a promising start. The research still provides some insight into how character-driven storytelling, even if it's fictional, changes the way we relate to others in real life.

In the meantime, if researchers are looking for more volunteers to watch "Mad Men" or some other rousing drama to help gather more data, we'd happily volunteer. You know, for science.

The findings were published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

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