Television

Why watching historical dramas is good for you according to psychologists

Media psychology research shows that, contrary to popular belief, TV watching is not all bad for you.

Media psychology research shows that, contrary to popular belief, TV watching is not all bad for you.

Olivia Cooke in the role of Becky Sharp in CBC Gem's Vanity Fair. (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Nielsen Media and Numeris research shows that we spend around a quarter of our lives (an average of four hours a day) as "couch potatoes" watching TV — and for some of us, a lot of that time is likely spent enjoying stories of the past: from Downton Abbey and Outlander to CBC's X Company, Fortunate Son, Murdoch Mysteries, and many others. 

While historical dramas have been around for a while, they have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years ending up all over streaming services including our CBC Gem.

Which begs the question: Why are we so drawn to TV and historical dramas and how does it affect us?

Psychologically meaningful impact

According to media psychology experts, Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in California as well as faculty in the media psychology program at Fielding Graduate University, and Dr. Shira Gabriel, an Associate Professor of Psychology at SUNY, University at Buffalo, there are positive psychological benefits to watching your fave historical drama including improved mental health, social connections and even listening skills in kids.

Dr. Rutledge adds that period dramas are about people and the human connection, from love stories to comrades in arms.

They allow us to experience extremes of emotion without the existential threat.- Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge

"These [period] stories are like a flight simulator for life," she says, "they show us ways of being through universal themes of love, betrayal, redemption, innocence, justice, sacrifice, transformation."

"The characters are often archetypal: the hero, the partner, the villain, the guide. And a good story allows the viewer to be transported into the narrative and experience the story from "within" through character identification that enables emotional engagement," added Dr. Rutledge, which she says creates a sense of presence of "being there" so the viewer feels like a participant emotionally rather than an observer.

"When watching a period series like The Tudors, for a blissful 40 minutes, you're transported into a world so foreign and distant to the one we live in today. It's easier to forget your problems when you're left wondering how on earth people coped with having to use a chamber pot (a pot used as a toilet in the bedroom) on a daily basis. Not to mention the impracticalities of their clothes," writes a history blogger from the British Council's language assistants, JuliaBlogger2017, in the British council magazine.

ThinkBox study explains the same, stating that television impacts our emotional needs in six ways: for comfort, to unwind, to escape, indulge, or simply for the experience.

Who knew watching Fortunate Son or Murdoch Mysteries was good for you?!

All in moderation, of course, explains Dr. Gabriel: "As long as people are using it as a part of their lives instead of their whole lives — which the vast majority of people do — it can be a positive part of a full life."

Real life connections and the comfort of knowing what to expect

"TV provides a risk free and low expenditure way to feel connected to others and entertained," says Dr. Gabriel. Her research suggests that when we engage with these stories, they make us feel as if we become a part of the social world presented in these narratives.

"We become a student at Hogwarts [Harry Potter] or a member of the royal family [The Tudors]. Although we know logically that we are not, we FEEL like we are," says Dr. Gabriel. 

She explains that our need for connection is strong, however, as a species we did not yet evolve to differentiate between real relationships and those which are presented in these narratives. 

"Our mind shifts to include the group in the narrative as a part of us." That shift is psychologically meaningful and as Dr. Gabriel's research suggests, we are happier for it because of the sense of belonging and importance in the world we feel as a result of it. Which ultimately makes us feel better about our own lives.

Plus, they may also make us feel smarter.​​​​- Dr. Shira Gabriel

Further explaining the reason we are so drawn to historical dramas, she says it's because of the powerful feeling of a real life connection to an actual group, "like you are a part of the Royal family [Versailles] as compared to a fictional group," which can result in improved mental health.

"Nothing is more strongly related to mental health than social connection. My research suggests that watching TV can help protect us against the negative effects of rejection and isolation in our own lives."

According to Dr. Rutledge, social connection around media is a powerful way to forge friendships through shared interests. Shows, particularly popular ones, are shared with other friends or fans which creates a sense of community and affiliation around it and expands the experience of the show into a fan's real life. 

There are also other contributing factors which amplify that emotional connection. 

"Period dramas have several appealing qualities: they focus on the aesthetics of a period. Even when they [show creators] are trying to add realism, it's never as complex as real life would have been. The focus stays on the characters. The settings and costumes create a sense of nostalgia and a romantic vision of other times," says Dr. Rutledge.

She adds that there's a formulaic pattern to the historical dramas which are among the cues that give the viewer information about what to expect: "There is comfort in knowing that a story will follow a genre-consistent story arc." 

"Even when characters are trying to break culturally and time-appropriate stereotypical roles, they are still formulaic," says Dr. Rutledge, singling out the example of Claire Fraiser's character from the show Outlander, set in the 1700s, who attempts to have a more equal relationship with her husband, Jamie, and be recognized for her skills as a healer.

"For some fans whose family think they're a little nuts for loving a particular show, it normalizes the interest and increases the fan's enjoyment."

The research has also shown that exposure to fiction correlated with social support while oral storytelling has been used with children to develop listening and telling skills.

Emotional engagement as empathizer

TV stories have been researched as a means to increase empathy — which Dr. Rutledge explains is probably a better way to describe emotional intelligence. However, she also adds that the research shows an increased measure of empathy only when participants were emotionally engaged in the story. 

"Some argue that reading or watching narratives that involve you emotionally helps develop empathy because mirror neurons respond to narratives as if they were physical encounters."

This means that storytelling allows people to have a better understanding of events and that our brains perceive real life events in the same way as those we see on Anne with an E or Frankie Drake Mysteries. 

Does that mean when we engage on such a deep level emotionally, our emotional intelligence increases? "It might," says Dr. Gabriel. 

There is research suggesting that narratives of all kinds increase emotional intelligence by helping us develop a theory of mind.- Dr. Shira Gabriel

So what happens to our brains when our beloved shows end?

"People deal with the end of a show or death of a character much like they deal with real losses in their lives. It hurts and can take some time to get over. They can deal with it by not minimizing it or feeling guilty for their emotions," says Dr. Gabriel. 

"It is normal and real to feel sad about this. At the same time, past TV shows don't get jealous, so you can find a new show and new favourite character to ease the pain."

Watch more of your favourite historical dramas on CBC Gem!

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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