This is Why We Watch: Television as a Way to Understand Life

Mar 26, 2024
This image shows the back view of a person sitting comfortably on a sofa while holding a TV remote. The person appears to be a male with short hair, wearing a gray shirt. They're facing a flat-screen television that is displaying a colorful menu with various multimedia icons, possibly a smart TV interface. The TV is mounted on a wall or placed on a stand in a living room setting. On the right, there’s a bookshelf with several books and what seems to be decorative items or storage boxes. The scene suggests a casual and relaxed environment typical of a home living space.

Television is a pivotal component of our cultural and personal education in an era dominated by screens. More than just a source of entertainment, television acts as a mirror reflecting societal norms and maps guiding us through the intricacies of personal growth and identity, all within the framework of social psychological theories.

Why We Watch: The Lessons of TV How We Learn

Social cognitive theory1, as introduced by Albert Bandura, illuminates the dynamic interplay between behavior, environment, and cognition. Television is an unintended yet vibrant classroom, teaching us social norms and behaviors through its stories. Consider "The Good Place," a series that merges moral philosophy with humor. Eleanor Shellstrop's evolution from a self-centered individual to one of selfless ethics offers viewers more than just laughs; it provides insights into ethics, the essence of friendship, and the journey of personal improvement. Such narratives gently guide us in navigating complex social situations and fostering empathy toward others.

Why We Care: TV and Identity

As social identity theory2 outlines, television's role in shaping our sense of identity and belonging cannot be understated. "Pose," for instance, not only breaks ground in the portrayal of LGBTQ+ individuals and the 1980s and 1990s ballroom culture but also validates and empowers viewers who see parts of their identity reflected in its characters. This connection underscores the importance of representation, allowing individuals to understand their own experiences through the prism of television, thereby reducing feelings of isolation.

How We Grow: Beyond the Screen

The journey of personal growth through television is multifaceted. Developing media literacy allows us to engage actively with the content we consume, appreciating its artistry while avoiding the pitfalls of comparing our lives to the often idealized worlds on screen. By choosing programs that showcase diverse experiences and positive values, we enrich our understanding and appreciation of the broader human experience.

TV's Impact on Our Self-View: Inspiration or Dissatisfaction?

While television has the power to inspire and educate, it also poses the risk of prompting unfavorable comparisons with the idealized lives it portrays. Social comparison theory sheds light on how these comparisons might motivate us yet also lead to dissatisfaction or envy. The opulent lifestyles in "Succession," for example, may inspire ambition but also distort our perception of success. It's crucial, therefore, to approach television with a critical eye, recognizing that these narratives are designed for entertainment rather than as realistic benchmarks.

Navigating Television's Landscape

How do we then navigate the complex landscape of television? By fostering a critical mindset and choosing content thoughtfully, we can use television not just as a source of entertainment but as a tool for learning and personal growth.

Insights to Actions: Your Reflections 💡

What shows have significantly changed your perspective on an issue? Have you seen yourself reflected in a character, and how did that affect you? Your experiences and reflections are valuable, not just to you but to all of us seeking to understand the impact of television on our lives. Share your thoughts in the comments below.


1Bandura, A. (2008). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (pp. 94–124). New York, NY: Routledge.
2 Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S.
Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–48).


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