The Shows You Watch Build Your Perception of the World

Photo: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

If the events of the past two months of have taught us anything it’s that everybody lives in a “bubble”; it’s impossible, unless you’re some sort of roving photo-ethnographer, to be deeply acquainted with the many cultures that comprise the United States. Anthropologists estimate that humans can only maintain up to 150 relationships at a time. Beyond that, it’s media — social and otherwise — that influence our mental construction of the world.

This was underlined again this week with a study in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, highlighted by Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard. In it, a group of 193 white Americans watched one of two shows: Little Mosque on the Prairie, a recent Canadian sitcom about a Muslim family living in small-town Saskatchewan referred to as “Islam’s Cosby Show,” and Friends, the ’90s mega-sitcom that’s still the most popular show on TV, the second-whitest sitcom ever, and a show that featured only a handful of black people in its decade of portraying New York. And guess what: The Mosque viewers “had more positive attitudes towards Arabs” on a number of tests.

An earlier study tracked the recurring characters in television that were black or gay from 1970 to 2000, matching that against responses about views on interracial and same-sex marriage and other tolerance questions. Author Jeremiah J. Garretson found that “frequent television viewers generally have more negative attitudes as compared with non-viewers when recurring portrayals of these groups are low,” but “television viewers have similar or higher levels of social tolerance compared with non-viewers when recurring portrayals become frequent.” For a case study, consider how Ellen DeGeneres has pushed the conversation about — and much of America’s familiarity with — gay people forward over the past two decades. This is the power of the one-sided, or “parasocial,” relationships that viewers develop with actors and the characters they play.

As Science of Us has noted before, research indicates that blacks are being less overrepresented as criminals on broadcast news, though Latinos are overrepresented as undocumented immigrants, and Muslims are “greatly overrepresented” as terrorists on the news. (As a corollary, Europeans greatly overestimate the number of Muslims in their countries).

Over the past 25 years, when the American crime rate fell precipitously from its 1991 peak, Americans that participate in Pew Research surveys have thought that it’s going up every year since the early 2000s. Media theorists call this Mean World Syndrome: Kids see 8,000 murders on TV before age 12, so they think the world is full of killing. “Tough on crime” political rhetoric doesn’t help.

The good news: All this research indicates that diversity within the narrative arts of film and television really does help people to open up their conceptions of the world and humans who look and love in ways different from their own. Since film and television are slowly getting more diverse as industries, there’s hope. A Meryl Streep speech or two doesn’t hurt, either.

The Shows You Watch Build Your Perception of the World