SPEAKER: What about the realism of something that doesn't look real, something that we have no experience with or that could never happen? Take science fiction, for example. Can we make judgments about how realistic the science fiction movie is?
[SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYING]
To decide how real a science fiction movie is, we need to be able to imagine what something would be like if it happened and then compare the movie or television image with our imagination. Another piece of evidence that our sense of what's real depends on our ability to imagine what could happen comes from a study of what scares children.
Some of you may recall the made-for-television movie The Day After. The movie depicted the aftermath of a nuclear war. Researchers found that older children were more frightened by the movie than younger viewers.
Why would that happen? The movie did not look that scary. There were a few scenes that physically showed nuclear war. But most of the movie required viewers to imagine what it must be like for survivors of a nuclear war.
Young viewers couldn't do that, so the movie didn't seem very scary to them. Older children could imagine the horrors of what comes after a nuclear war. They were more likely to be frightened.
The ability to imagine what something must be like is important in judging the realism of much of what we see on television. Few of us have ever been involved in a drug raid by the police, but we can imagine what it must be like and compare that to what we're seeing on television.
The ability to imagine hypothetical events and compare them to what we're seeing increases through middle childhood and into adulthood, so we see that, by adulthood, a number of abilities impact on our judgments of realism. A very young child depends mostly on how things look and sound to make reality judgments. As children mature, they start making additional distinctions-- for example, understanding that, although some events are possible, they're not very likely.
By middle childhood, children are starting to use their imaginations in judging reality. Adults can use all of these methods to decide how realistic something is. For example, an adult would pretty much ignore the physical nature of Bart and Homer in judging the realism of their relationship.
ANNOUNCER: Congratulations to our winning father and son team, who will receive a free appetizer at Fuzzy Zoeller's Green Jacket Steakhouse.
HOMER: Hey, boy. What do you say we build a robot?
BART: Face it-- you're not the most mechanical guy in the world. But you're good at other things, like eating while driving. That's something. And nobody gets madder at the news.
HOMER: First of all, thank you. Secondly-- my son thinks I'm an oaf.
SPEAKER: SpongeBob is a cartoon show now popular in the US. SpongeBob is a square, yellow sponge who wears square pants and lives in a pineapple under the sea. If that sounds strange, well, it is a cartoon.
A few weeks ago, I asked a nine-year-old fan of SpongeBob if SpongeBob is real. Of course, she said no. Why not? Well, he's a cartoon, she said. Cartoons aren't real.
But then, I asked her a little different question about one of the characters in the show. I asked a nine-year-old, what would she think if Patrick did something really smart? Her immediate reply-- he wouldn't.
Why not? Because Patrick is dumb. By the way, Patrick is the pink starfish in the green and purple shorts.
Let's think about this for a minute. The same child who knows that cartoons are unreal can also make an interesting judgment. She can think about what kind of behavior would be consistent for that cartoon character. She's making a distinction between how much a cartoon looks like the real world and how internally consistent is this cartoon world with what she knows about the social world.
Let's take a look at the kind of behavior she needs to interpret to judge Patrick's character. In the brief segment here, SpongeBob has thrown a party. During the party, he accidentally gets locked out of the house. He tries calling his friend, Patrick, a starfish, from a public phone. Patrick thinks the person on the phone is calling for SpongeBob.
SPONGEBOB: This is yesterday's paper. I'm just going to grab today's paper.
[LOUD MUSIC PLAYING]
SpongeBob, you sure know how to throw a party. What would they do without me?
SANDY: This song's got a great beat.
PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
SPONGEBOB: Gee, I wonder why they don't hear me.
PATRICK: Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba!
SPONGEBOB: Oh, no! They're not using the topic guards. They're ad-libbing! Now, they're mad at Patrick. He's hogging the deviled eggs.
Oh, look at those poor souls. They're so poor they've gone mad. Oh, no! The party's fallen into chaos without my hosting talents to guide it!
PATRICK: So, do you come here often?
MRS. PUFF: No.
PATRICK: Hello, SquarePants residence. What? Oh, I'm sorry. What?
SPONGEBOB: Patrick, it's me, SpongeBob.
PATRICK: You want to talk to SpongeBob?
SPONGEBOB: Ye-- no! Patrick, I'm SpongeBob. I'm outside.
PATRICK: OK. Hold on.
SpongeBob, are you out here? Phone's for you.
SPONGEBOB: Wha-- --at? No! Patrick, wait!
PATRICK: Sorry. He's not out there.
SPEAKER: In order for a child to understand why that clip is funny, she needs to know many things about the world-- about people's motives and about how events are connected. To summarize, as we watch television, we make judgments about the realism of what we're watching. We don't usually think about it, but we do it.
As children get older, those judgments are less about how real something looks and more about abstract relationships to reality. By the time a youngster reaches adolescence, he or she can make sophisticated judgments about the realism of a program.
In the next segment, we'll talk about whether television influences us consciously or unconsciously. The answer will be yes.
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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 2 of 5 in the The Psychology of Television Realism series.