Speaker: Jan Lenhart
Affiliation: Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg
Title: Does viewing fictional TV series improve theory of mind and empathy?
Abstract (long version below): In a naturalistic online experiment, effects of viewing fictional TV series on theory of mind and empathy as well as moderator effects of narrative processes (i.e., transportation and identification) were examined. To do so, 221 participants viewed either three episodes of a fictional TV series or a documentary at their own convenience during the span of a week. Theory-of-mind performance increased and self-reported empathy decreased from pre- to posttest across both conditions. There were no differences between the conditions and neither transportation nor identification were significant moderators. These findings question beneficial effects of a brief exposure to fictional TV series.
Long abstractNarratives that display interpersonal relationships and the inner life of their protagonists have been proposed as sources for acquiring social knowledge and for honing recipients’ social processes (Mar, 2018; Mar & Oatley, 2008). As most research focused on books and short stories (Dodell-Feder & Tamir, 2018), films and TV series have received only little attention so far. Although first results of two lab studies concerning an improvement of theory-of-mind performance were promising (Black & Barnes, 2015), it is unclear whether those effects transfer to more naturalistic settings. In addition, theoretical considerations (Mar, 2018) as well as the heterogeneity of previous empirical results (Dodell-Feder & Tamir, 2018) point out that effects of narratives might depend on moderator variables such as individuals’ narrative processes, namely transportation into the narrative and identification with its characters. Accordingly, goals of the present study were (1) to examine effects of viewing fictional TV series on social-cognitive skills in a naturalistic setting and (2) to investigate whether transportation and identification work as moderator variables.
In a naturalistic online experiment, 221 participants viewed either three episodes of a fictional TV series or a documentary at their own convenience during the span of a week. At the pre- and posttest the participants completed an empathy questionnaire (the Saarbrücker Persönlichkeitsfragebogen which represents a German version of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index; Davis, 1980, Paulus, 2019) and a theory-of-mind task (a German version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). In addition, the participants completed the Transportation Scale – Short Form (Appel et al., 2015) and the Identification with Characters Scale (Igartua, 2010) as well as several control questions at the posttest to ascertain that they had followed the assignments as instructed.
Across both experimental conditions, participants’ theory-of-mind performance increased slightly from pre- to posttest whereas their self-reported empathy decreased slightly. Contrary to the hypotheses, viewing the fictional TV series opposed to the documentary did not differentially influence participants’ social-cognitive skills. Neither transportation nor identification did act as moderator variables. Consequently, the results of the present study cast doubt on beneficial effects of a short-term exposure to fictional TV series on viewers’ social-cognitive skills. Indeed, any effects of brief narrative exposures that are found directly after engaging with a narrative might represent priming effects but not stable improvements of social-cognitive skills (Mumper & Gerrig, 2019; Panero et al., 2016).