That ancient Russian proverb is wiser than many psychology theorists were — at least until a generation ago. Until the 1960s, the prevailing theory had been based on “stimulus and response” whereby one learned from the pleasant or unpleasant consequences of one’s own behavior. Touch a hot stove and you’ll learn not to do that again. And of course that’s perfectly true but, thank God, there are also other, better ways to learn, such as seeing someone else touch a hot stove. Or hearing someone recount the various possible outcomes of touching hot stoves. Or even seeing actors touch imaginary stoves and hop around yelling in pretend-pain.
Then along came Albert Bandura, a social psychologist at Stanford University who pointed out what should have been obvious: We often learn vicariously by empathizing with others and imaginatively feeling their pain – or pleasure, as the case may be. Bandura (see photo) named his insight “social learning theory,” though later he started calling it “social cognitive theory,” to emphasize the fact that the personal changes resulting from these vicarious experiencesare not just a monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon, but are cognitively mediated.
Indeed, we don’t learn from the experiences of everyone we see. We’re choosey. We empathize with certain people more than others – specifically with people who are, we believe, similar to ourselves and whom we like. Empathy and “identification” are closely connected. Intensely identifying with someone can be a powerful, life-changing experience, for we are likely to emulate such persons and seek to increase our perceived similarity to them. Indeed, we learn, not only their responses, but also their tastes and preferences.
Advertisers caught onto this fact quicker than the rest of us. They recognized the value of having people observe an attractive or likeable person using their product and praising its marvelous effects. Nevertheless, we ordinarily still distinguish clearly between paid advertising and “regular entertainment,” when such influences on the audience are not thought to take place.
But of course, they do take place. Viewers continue learning after the ads stop and the drama resumes — and fortunately so, for that means that well-written dramas can help solve the world’s problems. Storytellers are advertisers, whether or not they intend to be. They may as well try to be good ones, advertising wise solutions to human predicaments.
The solution of most social problems requires an increase of public awareness, and the most powerful medium of public enlightenment is popular entertainment — especially episodic television drama. Such shows present a regular cast of characters who interact, often over a period of years — long enough for viewers to form strong relationships with some of them. Such social bonds with fictional characters can be as significant as those with real friends and lovers. Hence a viewer is apt to change her opinions to match those of the characters with whom she identifies.
This should not be news to anyone. For decades the effectiveness of the radio or television dramatic medium has been proved repeatedly in underdeveloped countries, where it is widely used to inform and inspire village housewives and their families. In India today, for example, one televised soap opera is regularly watched by 150 million viewers — as contrasted to about 18 million for the most popular American TV shows such as CSI or American Idol. In China another show also reaches audiences of about 150 million. These shows are produced with the advice of experts who have ascertained what sort of stories work best in educating viewers, and they are specifically designed to get certain messages across concerning such topics as child marriage, adult literacy, household sanitation, and the prevention of HIV transmission. They are immensely effective. No other medium can match the impact of such shows. By contrast, such programs as public service announcements on HIV have little or no impact on the awareness or behavior of the populations.
But viewers in affluent societies are also influenced by the content of the stories in their social environment. Every story inevitably conveys messages, just as every person inevitably speaks prose, but writers rarely recognize how much power they are exercising. Therefore, their impact is less beneficial than it might be. We in the West have our own problems to address. Popular television shows, in which we come to care about the characters, can inform and inspire us in a thousand different ways. I am happy to report that an increasing number of good dramatic series do offer plots that deal with significant social problems. I have seen, for example, one show about the epidemiology of Mad Cow disease and another about the erosion of personal privacy through the exchange of information by employers, credit card companies and medical insurers.
This is progress. It’s also brilliant entertainment.