MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Hi. I'm Mike Shapiro. I'm an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell. I teach the Psychology of Television course. My research has to do with how people know how real things are on TV.
The other day, I asked a student what he was thinking about when he watched TV. Nothing, he told me. He thought television is something we do with our brains turned off. Is it really?
From a psychological perspective, the last 30 or so years of research has shown that, for the most part, television is nothing special. What do I mean by that? The mental processes we use when we watch television are pretty much the same as the mental processes we use during other life experiences.
Sometimes we're aware of thinking about our experiences. But most of what we think is automatic. We aren't really aware of it.
But you might say television shows us a lot of things we wouldn't ordinarily see-- sex and violence, for example. That's true. Television also shows us married people struggling to save their relationship, lions in the wild, and politicians trying to win an election. To a psychologist, how we think about what we see is just as important as what we see.
Most of what we see on TV is people interacting. These interactions may be politicians interacting on the evening news or lovers arguing on a soap opera, police officers trying to find a fugitive on a drama. In order to understand these interactions, we need to think a great deal about events, motives, social relationships, world knowledge, and a thousand other things. Just like most of the other things we encounter in real life, television depicts complex events and relationships. It feels effortless because we're very good at thinking about these things.
What I'd like to do today is use one aspect of the way we think about television to illustrate how complicated our thinking has to be. One of the things that we think about while watching television-- the realism of what we're watching. For example, how real is that arguing couple on the soap opera?
Some soap opera couples are probably more real than others. How do we make that judgment? That's what I'd like to talk about.
Before I get started, I want to make clear this is based on research done by many people. I'm not always going to stop to try and identify exactly who said what. But I will provide a bibliography.
Let's talk a little bit about where this is going. First, I'm going to talk about how perceptions of reality change as children grow and eventually become adults. Knowing what children can and cannot do, tells us something about children. But it also tells us something about what adults can do that may not be obvious.
Both conscious and unconscious mental processes enter into thinking about reality. So I'll give a couple examples of those kinds of processes. Finally, I'll mention some things that parents can do to make television viewing a more positive experience.
Let's talk in general about some of the things that change as a child gets older. Several things influence how a child decides how real something is. First, children focus on how something looks. But as they get older, more and more conceptual thinking enters into their judgment about realism.
From birth, the child is learning. As children get older, they gain more and more experience about lots of things. That knowledge can influence judgments about realism. Finally, as a child gets older, his or her goals change. That too can influence judgments about realism.
Now, let's look at this in more detail. Very young children depend heavily on physical characteristics of television to decide what's real. To a child, a cartoon is less real than a drama because the cartoon characters don't look like people. A child thinks an advertisement is different from the rest of the program because it's louder, more colorful, and shorter.
For example, in one study, the researchers found that most very young children judge the woman on the left as nicer. Children a few years older were much more likely to say the woman on the right was nicer. This and other research indicates that young children tend to think that what looks nice is nice, what looks scary is scary. Older children are more likely to understand that a person's behavior is more important than looks in judging how nice they are.
When children first learn to tell the difference between advertising and programming, they do it based on the physical characteristics of ads. The ads are shorter, louder, faster moving. It isn't until much later, about eight years old, the children really start to understand that someone is trying to sell them something.
When the look and the sound of television ads and programming are very similar, it may make it more difficult for children to distinguish between advertising and program. Look at some of these transitions between television and programming. Try to think like a child. How easy would it be to tell program from advertisement based on physical characteristics alone?
-We're going to be crushed.
-Thornberries will be back.
-Nick on CBS.
-Super Cocoa Man, what's wrong?
-I need something super chocolatey or I can't save the city.
- --do with all this metal?
-I'm building my throne.
-Teamo Supremo will be right back. Hey, even superheroes need a break right here on Toon.
-Sunny's at the world's kookiest coaster.
-More Arnold very soon.
-Nick on CBS.
-At a fashion show, I'll get two color Trix!
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Advertising can also confuse children about the size of things. Again, think like a child. How easy would it be for a young child to get a realistic idea of how big this toy is?
-GI Joe, valour versus venom.
-Cobra ambush. Fire torpedoes.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Keep in mind that the appearance of things isn't necessarily a bad way to judge realism. Things that look real often are real. Even adults use the physical characteristics of things as part of judgments about realism. But as children get older, they use their knowledge of the world more and more. This could include knowledge of the physical world, the social world, and the media world.
As children get older, they start to recognize that even things that look real vary in how real they are. Eventually, children start to understand that sometimes they're watching actors playing a role and sometimes are watching people being themselves. By middle childhood, children still use physical characteristics and genre. But they're also starting to make more sophisticated categorizations about what's real.
As they get older, children are increasingly able to distinguish between the appearance of an object and it's true nature. One distinction seems to be on the basis of factually. Children start to distinguish between events that really happened outside of TV and those that were made up for TV.
Another distinction is between fabricated but possible and fabricated but probable or representative. During the passage from middle to late childhood, more and more children define real as probable or plausible not just possible. Others have pointed out that children's ability to distinguish between real and unreal varies with the child's experience with a topic and that children often use their real world and television experiences to make complex judgments about reality.
For example, even young children know about family life. A child has a great deal of experience with his or her own family and with families of relatives and friends. When a child sees a family depicted in the media, the child could compare it to the child's own family and families the child knows to make inferences about the reality of the media family. By third or fourth grade, most children can tell you some of what's realistic and unrealistic about family life in this clip.
-Yes I know. That means I have exactly 12 hours left to create the most fantastic Thanksgiving feast in the history of Thanksgiving feasts.
-What's with the sheets?
-I can't cope with distractions.
-I don't think--
-Dad, remember the chocolate souffle I made for Thanksgiving two years ago?
-Oh yeah. That was--
-Rat puke compared to what I have planned. The crepes I made last Thanksgiving?
-Crap next to what we're having tonight. Don't think of this as a meal. This is going to be like eating the Mona Lisa.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: As children get closer to adolescence, they better understand people's motives. For example, they understand more about the conflicts they see in drama. And they understand that advertisements are trying to sell them something. Older children also have more experience. For example, older children have been disappointed often enough to become skeptical of products advertised on television.
By early adulthood, understanding of reality is complex. It's not surprising that people usually rate news as more real than drama. However, adults also know that news is not entirely real. Adolescents know that television news presents events as less complex, more intense, and more solvable than people know them to be in real life.
Adults also understand that even a cartoon can represent certain aspects of human behavior realistically. A cartoon depiction of alcoholism, family conflict, and a variety of other topics that's coherent with what we know about those topics may seem more real than a depiction with live actors that's not coherent with what we know.
In the next segment, I'm going to talk about what I think is one of the niftier aspects in the psychology perceived reality. That's how our imagination helps us to make judgments about what's real.
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Television, video games, and other media often represent the world in ways that concern us. We worry that young children may copy what they see on cartoons, that older children may be influenced by the sexual and violent images they see, and that adults may be influenced by stereotyped images. While there is cause for concern, there is also evidence that even children are able to reasonably interpret much of what they see. On the other hand even adults can be influenced by television without being aware of that influence. Understanding the complex psychological mechanisms that people use when watching television can help families know what to worry about and what to do about it.
This video is part 1 of 5 in the The Psychology of Television Realism series.