Drama on Television

18 07 2011

One of the things I have learned as a writer is that in order to make a story interesting, it needs to have conflict.  If I were to write a story about all the mundane things in the life of some mild-mannered protagonist, you would not want to read it.  Conflict makes the story exiting.  That is why when you look at popular media, you will see conflict.  We can divide that conflict into two types – physical and emotional.  Of these two types, physical conflict, or violence, has gotten the most bad press.  We’ve all heard the studies linking violence in the media to violence in our society.  The more youth view the portrayal of violence, the more apt they are to act out violently.  They begin to believe that violence is the answer to their problems and fail to see the consequences of their actions.

Violence in the media has been well documented and has been debated substantially.  What hasn’t gotten a lot of attention until recently has been the emotional conflict or drama that is pervasive and often very subtle in entertainment.  Drama, like its counterpart violence, has a negative impact on youth and adults alike.  Let’s examine why this is so.

Comparison  Bias

It’s human nature to compare ourselves with those we associate with.  We build biases on what behavior is acceptable based on these comparisons.  The comparison bias we develop can only be a product of our experiences.  In other words we tend to believe in things and behave in ways congruent with those we spend time with.  For example, you would tend to be a negative person if you chose to spend time with negative people.

In today’s society, we not only spend time with our family, friends and coworkers, we also spend time with media.  Let’s pick on television.  The average person watches 34 hours of television a week.  When a person becomes emotionally attached to a character on television, the mind doesn’t distinguish between the character and a real person known to the viewer.  This causes influence to be exerted on the viewer based on comparisons made between them and the character.  Personality is influenced.

Lack of Consequences and Moral Judgement

The notion of dramatic behavior as a means of problem solving is reinforced by media that shows characters acting in dramatic ways.  A very low percentage of television shows contextualize the drama or explored its human consequences. The drama was simply presented as justifiable, natural and inevitable — the most obvious way to solve the problem.

It is theorized that people not only learn specific behaviors from the drama they see on television, but can also learn more generalized, complex social scripts (sets of “rules” for how to interpret, understand, and deal with a variety of situations, including conflict). Once learned, such scripts serve as cognitive guides for future behavior. For example, from observing dramatic behavior, people may learn that emotional aggression can be used to try to solve interpersonal conflicts. As a result of mental rehearsal (e.g., imagining this kind of behavior) and repeated exposure, this approach to conflict resolution can become well established and easily retrieved from memory. Finally, through inferences they make from repeated observations, people also develop beliefs about the world in general (e.g., is it hostile or benign) and about what kind of behavior is acceptable.

Reality Television

Recent studies show that incidences of emotional attacks in entertainment have been increasing, especially in reality television.  While reality television purports to be real, it is often scripted and edited to create what I call manufactured drama.  It is this manufactured drama that is the most insidious kind of drama.

The current trend is for participants to attempt to win prizes by stabbing fellow participants in the back.  For example, participants in The Apprentice (the Donald Trump’s reality program) stay on the show by creating drama with the other contestants.  They attempt to get their rivals fired while sabotaging others’ attempts at being effective leaders.  In Survivor, players are rewarded for manipulating other players while only looking out for themselves in order to vote each other out of  the show. The contestants in The Bachelor talk about their feelings while jealously putting down all the other contestants vying for a man confused by the overload of attractive women gold-digging on him.  In the show The Amazing Race, players often interact with their partners dysfunctionally while attempting to compete in a race that seems to favor the most juvenile.  Often players invent derogatory names for players that are different than themselves.

Drama as a Weapon

This drama is portrayed as the correct way to respond to situations in our everyday life.  Some people thrive on drama and use it to inform their interactions with others.

There will be drama in our lives whether caused by ours or someone else’s actions.  It can cause problems, but drama created where there should be none has a deeply detrimental effect on our relationships with those around us.  People caught up in drama often emotionally damage those around them.  It can tear families apart and shred friendships to rags.  Verbally putting someone down or deliberately sabotaging their lives can be compared to punching someone in the face or setting fire to their house.

Gossip and backbiting is another cause and amplifier of drama.  When we engage in these practices, we are undermining the ability for any real dialogue to take place.  It erodes the trust necessary to be able to build effective and fulfilling relationships with those around us.

Drama, like violence, is not the answer to problems we encounter in our real lives.  We need to be able to put aside the natural instinct to strike back with drama when drama is served to us.  That only escalates the drama and makes damaged relationships become irreparable.





2 responses

18 07 2011

Really well said, I have often noticed that my kids’ behavior is altered after playing even teen rated video games with a lot of cartoon violence and drama as well as when they watch too much TV. It is so important to put limits on “screen time” and be aware of what we are putting into our minds. It also explains why there are so many drama queens in the world.

18 07 2011
David Montgomery

Finally, someone takes the attack to the dramatists. I will put a stop to my kids playing video games with too much drama…as soon as I can think of any.

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