Tuesday 17 November 2015

Research Bulletin: Does TV Help Us Understand Others?

A number of studies have examined whether reading books is related to one’s ability to infer what other people are thinking and feeling. On the whole, both correlational and experimental work find that exposure to fiction literature predicts better abilities at inferring mental states (e.g., Kidd & Castano, 2013; Mar et al., 2006). But is this effect limited to the written word? Jessica Black and Dr. Jennifer Barnes (University of Oklahoma) decided to examine whether exposing people to award-winning television shows could prompt people to be more accurate at guessing what others are feeling. In their first study, people watched either a TV episode from a narrative fiction series (Mad Men or The West Wing), or as a control condition, and episode from a documentary TV series (Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back or How the Universe Works). Afterwards, both groups completed a measure of their mental inferencing abilities. What they found was that those who watched a piece of fiction exhibited better mental-inferencing abilities than those randomly assigned to watch the documentary TV episode. This was true even after controlling for gender and past reading habits. A second study replicated these results using different a different set of TV shows (Lost and The Good Wife for fiction, versus Through the Wormhole: Is Time Travel Possible? and NOVA: Colosseum: Roman Death Trap). These results provide a fascinating extension of work on how engagement with narrative fiction, in all its forms, might promote thinking about other people and their mental states. 

* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).

Black, J. & Barnes, J. L. (in press). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory-of-mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and
the Arts.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377–380.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., de la Paz, J., & Peterson, J. (2006) Bookworms versus nerds:
Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the
simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.
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