Can TV Shows Increase Social Skills? – Revisiting “Everything Bad is Good for You”

In Intelligence, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Success on August 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm


By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

In an episode of Hawthorne, a show about a Chief Nursing Officer at the fictitious Trinity Richmond Hospital, the main character Christina (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is faced with a dilemma. In an effort to ‘save’ a close friend, that is suffering from stage four cancer, she convinces him to participate in a clinical trial for cancer patients who are at stage two. She is able to coerce the researcher conducting the trial to admit her friend but it results in disastrous consequences for others. As a result of her friend being accepted into the program another man who has a ‘greater’ chance for survival is forced out. The man happens to be a patient of the Head Surgeon of her hospital and the Head Surgeon is also Christina’s good friend. When she is confronted about her activities she is forced to decide who gets the spot.

What would you do?

These type of predicaments are now standard fare for many television shows. The characters are placed in scenarios that are nuanced, layered and can’t easily be resolved. Steven Johnson, in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, argues that in many ways these new types of shows improve your social and emotional intelligences. He asserts that multiple plot lines, no clear delineation of hero and villain and unending story lines keeps the audiences engaged and in our efforts to understand or critique we improve our social skills.

Great examples of these shows are Friday Night Lights, Weeds, Californication, LostSurvivorPrison Break, 24 and Nurse Jackie. These programs force audiences to use their cognitive skills in ways past television shows could not. The levels of logic, intuition and pure common sense audiences must exercise while viewing these shows raises the term ‘armchair quarterback’ to a new level. Additionally, the often outlandish behavior of characters on both scripted and ‘partially scripted’ (reality) TV shows are hard to ignore and not make judgments about.

But, do shows like these really help us in meaningful ways? Can nursing students learn valuable lessons from watching Hawthorne or Nurse Jackie?

The power of such shows, Johnson states, is that viewers often empathize with the characters or at the least think about what they would do if they were faced with similar situations. Constant viewing of these shows provides the audiences with opportunities to broaden and enrich their social toolbox and to think about some of their own emotional issues.

Ultimately, these shows are just entertainment, but many explore issues pertaining to gender, race, ageism, violence, politics and a host of ordinary, everyday problems. At the least, Johnson offers that people gather to watch these shows and discuss them at school, work and on the Internet; which he claims further increases their analytic skills or at least provides a reason for social interaction.

Do I agree fully? No. — But at least when I’m watching a Numb3rs marathon on Netflix or Weeds on Showtime I can argue that I’m improving my social skills.

Hey Guys, I have recently been added as a blogger at Psychology Today (Magazine). Come check out my blog, Communication Central

  1. This is a pretty interesting concept. I would have never thought that television could have improved social skills. Sometimes it really is about stepping back and looking things from a different angle…even television shows. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Sybil,

    Thanks! It’s funny, but the past few days since I wrote this post I’ve caught myself making comments or judgments on what I would do if I was the character on TV. I realize I do it all the time.

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