Does viewing fictional TV series improve theory of mind and empathy?

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Jan Lenhart
:classical_building: 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.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Narratives 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).

Hi Jan! Thank you for your interesting presentation. This is really great and important work! I’m just putting my questions here also as a reminder for myself, as I’m sure we can discuss them tomorrow during the discussion session.

Firstly, did I understand correctly that you asked participants about their self-selected media exposure during the week that the study took place. Is that something you controlled for in your models? And did you find any interesting results with respect to that? I could imagine, for example, that for participants who did not engage with any other narrative media that week, watching the assigned narrative condition might make a bigger difference (if any) than for participant who along side your assigned piece of fiction, also binge watched the entire four seasons of Stranger Things.

Secondly, you mention that perhaps Black and Barnes found an effect because the post-test was administered immediately after the intervention, whereas you measured the post-test after a week in which the participants finished the intervention at their own tempo. I think this is very plausible, as I think the priming account is one of the best proposed mechanisms for the potential effect of narrative fiction on social cognition. However, I was just wondering whether you are aware of the Bal & Veltkamp study (2013) that found effects of reading fiction on empathy, but only after a week and not immediately after the intervention. They actually suggest that exposure to narrative fiction might trigger a transformative process that takes time to unfold. What do you think about these conflicting ideas?

Finally, a very general and big question, I’m just wondering how you feel about the idea that narrative fiction could foster social cognition after having engaged with the literature and doing some of your studies. What is your current take on the idea and the proposed mechanisms?