Can Rom-Coms Make You a Better Person?

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Don’t underestimate the effects of consistently communing with Hugh Grant.

By Tom Jacobs

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Hugh Grant: rom-com God. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

Given that bullying is being modeled by some of our top political leaders, this is an excellent time to devote serious thought to moral issues. Getting a firm grasp on what we consider right and wrong could provide a steady compass as we navigate the turbulent times ahead.

Fortunately, you don’t have to imitate Kristen Bell in The Good Place and take a course in ethics. All you need to do is watch more romantic comedies.

That’s the main finding of a newly published study, which looks at how repeated exposure to two movie genres — romance and action — influences the moral sensitivity of viewers.

“Repeated exposure to romantic films led to increases in sensitivity for four of the five moral intuitions,” writes a research team led by Matthew Grizzard of the University at Buffalo–State University of New York. “At the same time, any exposure to action films seemed to erode those changes.”

As regular readers of this column know, the term “moral intuitions” comes from the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He breaks down our basic ethical impulses into five categories: Harm/care (aversion to the suffering of others); fairness; loyalty; respect for authority; and purity (both biological and metaphorical). According to his research, political liberals are primarily driven by the first two impulses, while conservatives place more or less equal weight on all five.

Grizzard and his colleagues decided to explore how repeated exposure to specific film genres would affect sensitivity to each of these ethical impulses. Their study featured 87 university students who watched a double bill of movies each week for five weeks.

Participants were broken down into four categories. One-quarter exclusively watched romantic films, while another quarter saw only action movies. For the others, the ratios were 60–40 romantic, or 80–20 action. The movies were all at least 15 years old (to reduce the effect of novelty), and received similar levels of critical acclaim.

At the beginning of the study, and again at the end, participants filled out the 30-item Moral Foundations Questionnaire. They expressed their level of agreement with statements such as “Justice is the most important requirement for a society” and “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong.” They also noted how relevant certain factors were to their concept of right and wrong, including preventing suffering, showing a lack of respect, and denying someone’s rights.

The key result: Participants who exclusively watched the romantic comedies increased their ethical sensitivity over the five weeks. By the end of the study, they were more attuned to four of the five moral intuitions (“purity” being the exception).

This was not true for any of the other participants, which suggests that the sensitivity-increasing influence of the romance-oriented films was negated by the more brutal action movies.

The results somewhat surprised the researchers, who were expecting different genres would sensitize people to different moral principles. The fact that romantic comedies left viewers more sensitive to the issue of care makes sense, given that such movies prominently feature “love, romance, and emotional support,” they write.

But why they would influence attitudes regarding other types of morality is unclear. Perhaps simply focusing on interpersonal relationships, rather than driving fast and blowing stuff up, puts one in a more sensitive frame of mind.

Don’t feel guilty about dragging your significant other to see a romantic comedy. Do it regularly and you may end up with a more ethically sensitive partner.

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