My wife and I were ridiculously excited about watching the recent season finale of Game of Thrones together – we’d watched all the previous 66 episodes together too, and the characters almost feel a part of our lives. Spending our time this way has always seemed like a guilty pleasure, but a team of psychologists led by Sarah Gomillion at the University of Aberdeen say that couples’ shared enjoyment of TV, movies and books can help foster feelings of closeness and a shared social identity.
They add that the benefits of consuming films and TV together may be especially apparent for couples who lack a shared world of real friends and family members, with the fictional characters serving a surrogate role. Writing in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, Gomillion and her colleagues said “Humans have created shared social experiences through narrative and performance long before the advent of modern media. Our findings support the growing evidence that like other forms of narrative, contemporary media benefits people by providing a rich, psychologically meaningful social world.”
The researchers asked 259 students in an exclusive romantic relationship (the average length was 16 months) to fill out questionnaires about the quality of their relationship, how many friends they shared with their partner, and how much time they spent watching TV shows or films, or reading books, together.
The participants who said they shared more friends with their partner tended to rate their relationship more positively, as did those who said they spent more time consuming TV, films and/or books together, although the latter association was weaker. However, among the participants who said they shared few friends with their partner, sharing media together was strongly associated with rating the relationship more positively, including scoring it higher for interdependence, closeness and being more confident in it. This last association remained statistically significant even after controlling for overall time spent together.
Next, the researchers asked 128 more student participants in an exclusive relationship to either spend time thinking about the friends they shared with their partner or to think about all the friends they did not share. The participants also rated how much they are into films, TV and books. Finally, they said how motivated they were to share media together with their partner, and they rated the quality of their relationship.
Participants into TV and other media and who were primed to think about their lack of shared real-world friends tended to say they were more interested in consuming more media together with their partner, as if sensing intuitively that this would be beneficial. Also, the more they wanted to share media with their partner, the higher they tended to rate the quality of their relationship, raising the possibility that merely contemplating watching TV and movies together was enough to foster increased feelings of closeness, although the current data can’t prove this.
In fact, much as would like these new results to justifying sharing TV box sets with my wife, the new evidence for it being beneficial is weak, being entirely correlational in nature. The researchers acknowledged as much – “A critical next step for future research is to explore the potential benefits of media for relationships by directly manipulating sharing media with a partner,” they concluded, also adding that it remains a possibility that excessively sharing media together “may actually undermine relationships by isolating partners from their real-world social networks and limiting opportunities to share other types of social experiences.”
Image: The Premiere of HBO’s ‘Game Of Thrones’ Season 7 at Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 2017 in Los Angeles (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images).