Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Psychological Effects of Watching Immoral or Bad Characters on TV

HBOGirlsThumbAssistant Professor Elizabeth Cohen at Scientific American says:

According to [Zillman’s] affective disposition theory, people enjoy entertainment when characters that they identify as the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” get the justice they deserve.

And yet for a long time, we the audience have apparently enjoyed watching characters on TV do bad/immoral things and even root for them in some sense. It cannot be said that we watched The Sopranos just waiting for Tony’s comeuppance. Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, Dexter (and I have argued Girls) are shows where our watching has little to do with justice for the anti-heroes at the heart of their stories.

Cohen explains that Zillman’s original hypothesis in its details is more or less out of favor, even with his own school of thought:

Zillmann’s intellectual progeny question the premise that feeling good is the only reason we watch entertaining television. We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy [i.e., overflowing with pleasure-DF], but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Oliver is working with a very useful distinction that goes under the description of “hedonic happiness versus eudaimonic happiness”. There are two kinds of “happiness” that can be easily confused. Hedonic just means happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with strict pleasure. Eudaimonia has to do with happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with meaningfulness and purpose in life.

My title of this blog post suggests I am interested in the effects on a person’s mental states (his or her psychology) when he or she watches anti-heroes on TV. According to Zillman, the effect would be a kind of hedonic pleasure we get from seeing justice dispensed upon their deserving heads. But that doesn’t seem to capture what’s going on in lots of recent TV shows in which, yes, the season finale of the show’s final season might resolve into questions about justice, but in which the rest of the earlier episodes are not about dispensing justice and therefore do not trigger any supposed hedonic pleasure that would go with seeing it meted out.

For these other shows, it seems to make more sense to say, as Oliver does, that watching dramatic stories (whether justice prevails or not) provides eudaimonic happiness (let’s be careful not to confuse things by calling it “pleasure”) insofar as stories are realistic or at least relevant to our lives in the sense that they give us the opportunity to think (and more likely feel) our way through issues that once thought or felt through provide meaningfulness and understanding and purpose in life.

On the Phrase “It’s Not Psychological, It’s Neurological”

Crews and Adler believe that most cases of the yips probably have a psychological basis of some kind, but that in some percentage the ultimate cause will turn out to be neurological.[The New Yorker]

All philosophers of mind and most philosophers generally will recognize the error in this sentence, or should recognize it. Basically, the psychological cause of the yips (flinches in your golf swing, spasms in piano playing, or Knoblauch-like screw ups in baseball) is itself a neurological state or event. Because every psychological event is identical to or is also itself a neurological event.

In other words, there is nothing psychological that does not take place neurologically in the brain. So, saying that the yips are “not psychological but rather neurological” will not work because whatever is describable as psychological is at least in principle describable neurologically, since every psychological event is a neurological event somewhere in the central nervous system.

Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

I am not talking about the debate between mind-body dualists and mind-body monistic physicalists. I am just talking about the naturalist position on the mind and the brain (on psychological events and neurological events and therefore on psychology and neuroscience as disciplines about those types of events, respectively). The naturalist position says the mind is the brain, psychological events are neurological events — we will return to the question of whether psychology as a science is identical to or reducible to neuroscience. (The latter is an epistemological question about our knowledge of things. I am talking about things-in-themselves like states of affairs or events, which is a metaphysical question.) Most philosophers assume or would like to assume that most if not all scientists were naturalists. So, the scientists who work on events in the brain at the level of psychology recognize and affirm that the mental processes which they describe qua mental process are in fact neurological processes.

Again: Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

This is something I think Dan Dennett and others have taken scientists to task for.

But now consider the following quotations:

One of Adler’s hopes for the new study is that it will help define the division between psychological and neurological causes….

What could that mean? It seems straightforward, but if it is meant metaphysically (meant to be about things-as-they-are-in-themselves) then it perpetuates the mistake of thinking that some psychological events (or causes, i.e., causal-events) are not, at another level of description, neurological events. But of course they are, if we are to remain naturalistic. If, on the other hand, the statement is meant epistemologically (in the sense of being about what we can know and at the level of what interests us in the various goings-on in the mosaic of things and events in the world), then it’s not saying that we’ll learn the difference or division between psychological and neurological events-in-themselves, instead we will differentiate those times that it’s convenient or pragmatic for us to describe an event as psychological and not neurological and when it’s convenient or pragmatic (shall I say “explanatory”) to describe an event as neurological and not psychological.

Here’s another one:

At that time, ‘neurosis’ was merely a standard term for disorders whose origin was neurological rather than, say muscular….

This statement is better. It makes a conceptually non-confused distinction between a neurosis, like thinking everyone is out to get you (a mental event qua mental), which is understandable as “based” in the neurological, and maybe a twitch, that is based in the muscular system and not the neurological.

Now this:

Beginning with the rise of psychoanalysis and continuing into the nineteen-seventies, he said, dystonias, including [this special sort of] writer’s cramp, were often treated as forms of mental illness….

“Treated as” implies a sense of “conceived as” it seems to me, as well as “medically treated”. Because of the rise of psychoanalysis and, one assumes, a proliferation of pop-psychology, dystonias were conceived as being mental and were intervened upon (treated) with mental interventions, like talk therapy.

What’s interesting to me is that some “problems” roughly thought of as “mental” will be amenable to talk therapy and others won’t. Any “mental” problem is, as we naturalists have it, neurological as well as psychological. It’s just that some are going to respond to “psychological” interventions like “here, think this new way,” or “isn’t that interesting, your nail-biting means this and that to you in your self-understanding,” while other “mental” problems can only be intervened upon neurologically at the level of medicines based on neurotransmitters or even at the level of brain surgery. It seems like no amount of talk therapy will rid someone of, I don’t know, face-blindness, which is understood primarily neurologically as damage to a brain area or at least a mis-functioning or malfunctioning system in the brain.

So are the yips a mental problem that can be dealt with only neurologically or can they be intervened upon with cognitive/talk therapy? The article goes on to list a number of psychological interventions: “A ball that isn’t a ball can’t miss the hole. Similarly, a putter that doesn’t feel like a putter may not jerk.”

What the author of the article is talking about is getting the golfer to think that they are not hitting a ball but just swinging at a marshmallow or something. This, it seems to me, is a an attempt, at the psychological level, to change to brain chemistry of the golfer while he or she swings. This way the brain chemistry behind the yips is circumvented and a non-yip swing can happen.

Indeed, any psychological intervention is metaphysically also a neurological intervention. It’s just that it’s easier to get a handle on the psychological description of what’s going on and perhaps at the present impossible to get a handle on what’s actually happening with the neurological events in themselves.