Have you ever cried ugly tears during “This Is Us?” Have you ever felt more emotionally attached to characters on television than you should be? Have you ever found yourself in a full-blown relationship with your shows? If this sounds like you, you should know that all of these feelings are completely normal and even considered healthy. But why do your shows have this much of an impact on you? There is psychological reasoning behind this level of fandom as well as scientific research that explains why we emotionally invest ourselves in our shows.
Ben Johnson, a Penn State graduate student lecturer for PSYCH 438, is experienced in the field of personality psychology and says that television shows allow us to satisfy some of our needs in a socially appropriate way, similarly to how the ego functions in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.
Johnson also discusses the Big Five personality traits in relation to how emotionally invested we become in our shows. One of the traits is openness which describes people who are very imaginative and enjoy trying new things.
“People who are high in openness tend to seek out new experiences and are relatively empathic,” Johnson says. “They also tend to be the type of people who are more invested and engrossed in fiction, movies and TV shows.”
Empathy is another big factor in predicting people’s emotional involvement in TV shows, especially ones with relatable characters.
“People who are more in tune to their own emotions or other people’s emotions will get very invested in shows especially ones that have similar characters to themselves,” Johnson says.
We heavily invest in shows because we empathize with characters based on our own personal experiences. We would not be able to have real emotional reactions to characters if we didn’t already know how to feel those emotions in our everyday lives.
You may also ask why people enjoy watching tearjerker’s like “Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood” or “This Is Us” even though they know it will make them cry. Johnson says television plays a sort of cathartic role in that we already have all these emotions, but sometimes lack an outlet to release them.
“We have these kinds of negative emotions all the time, if there’s upsetting things happening in the world or in our lives, but it’s not necessarily socially appropriate to walk around campus crying. It is appropriate to cry watching “This is Us,”” Johnson says.
Also, just as we cry when a character experiences something saddening, we are excited when they succeed or are elated when they find happiness. Television dramas have the ability to inflict powerful emotions on us by tapping into the emotions we already have and building on them.
Our emotional connections with these characters are real even if the characters themselves are fake. But what happens when that character is killed off or leaves the show? Most people can relate to feeling slightly depressed or in a funk when a character we have developed such an emotional attachment to is no longer on our favorite show.
“Fantasy-related empathy is the ability to connect with unreal characters and it is associated with how you might feel if that character were to get killed off,” Johnson says. “You will probably see minor versions of the same type of process of losing an actual person — initial denial, working through it, grief, moving on, only on a smaller scale.”
Furthermore, crying while watching fictional television or becoming emotionally attached to shows and characters has been proven to have numerous real-world benefits like boosting self-esteem, decreasing loneliness, and providing more sense of belonging as reported by Time.
Attachments can also result from people seeking to fill voids they may have in their personal lives and turning to entertainment as a solution. If someone lacks a romantic relationship in their lives or desires more family ties, they often find comfort in television shows with these emphases.
“People either seek out shows with certain characters that they can resonate with because they have similar experiences or people seek out things that are different as a corrective experience,” Johnson says. “If someone is lonely, they could be attracted to shows with a good and healthy family dynamic.”
Johnson says that while TV shows only provide temporary solace, they can still function as a material thing that serves to fill a void.
So, if you’re one of those people who sobs during shows even if it’s a rerun, you are not alone. If in the following days after your show ends you feel broken hearted, incomplete or like you are reeling from a breakup, that is also a completely normal response. We’ve all been there and now you know there are reasons why you’re feeling this rollercoaster ride of emotions over a television show.