Complexity of Narratives in Television

By Samantha Moore

Back with another edition of applying psychology to television shows! Have you ever thought about why certain plot lines and stories appeal more to you than others? Well, it’s partly because of the Self-Determination Theory. The theory states that there are three basic needs to fulfill to be psychologically satisfied: competence, relatedness and autonomy. Competence and relatedness are two of the reasons we are drawn to more complex story lines than others. As individuals, we like to be challenged just enough to keep it interesting and keep us engaged in what is happening, but not too complex as the audience will lose interest in trying to understand the plot lines and story arch. We like to feel competence in our daily lives. The concept of eudaimonia, which is essentially acknowledging our own emotions and happiness, is born through this competence. A normally functioning person, even at a fundamental and subconscious level, derives pleasure or feeling of competence from experiencing emotion. We value the ability to reflect on our own emotional experiences, which is what can drive us to watch sad television shows or movies. We also thrive on autonomy and feel a sense of accomplishment when we deem ourselves competent in an activity or area of study. If you can successfully explain the plot line of a complex show—House of Cards for example—you might feel a slight sense of competence and accomplishment. However, personally when I’m watching shows like Family Guy I often lose focus because the storyline is not challenging enough or is too boring. Since we all spend so much of our time watching tv shows, it makes sense to understand even further why we choose the shows we watch. If we knew what was going to happen in every episode would we still watch? If we could predict the twists and turns of a story arch would we still be as intrigued by certain shows? The complexity of a narrative in a television show matters and can affect our choices and interests in that regard.

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4 Responses to Complexity of Narratives in Television

  1. mediaphiles says:

    This is a very interesting point about what drives us to make decisions concerning which tv shows we choose to invest in. I had never attributed this decision to competence, but it does explain why I find shows that require my attention and understanding far more entertaining than others that do not require this attention. It also explains why so many people are often obsessed with being the “authority” on a certain tv show by offering to explain the plot over and over because they have seen each episode 3 times or so. This topic of competence is a great way to relate television back to its psychological roots.
    -Lacey Worsham

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I can relate all of these to the anime shows I watch. They are all complex enough to keep me guessing, but at least I can guess at what I think will happen next. I can relate to them based upon what has and is occurring in my life, and I am autonomous in choosing to only watch anime because nothing else really entertains me. The autonomy part was hard to grasp from your post though, some more detail about that part would have been nice.

    -turner arrington

  3. mediaphiles says:

    The fact that, as humans, we enjoy storylines that are just complex enough resonates with me. I love House of Cards but sometimes I can get lost in the density of the plot. I hate nothing more than having to google what an episode was about. Personally, I watch TV to be challenged enough that my attention is kept, but comfortable enough that I am not stressed in my form of escapism. – Andrew Guido

  4. mediaphiles says:

    This is such an interesting concept! The more I think about the shows I am drawn to, I see how much this theory applies. I definitely get bored, and even annoyed, by shows like Family Guy, but sometimes complex shows do not agree with my mood and I just want to watch something simple to unwind. I think we sometimes feel smarter when we watch and understand a more complex show because it is a reflection of our own knowledge and depth of intelligence in some way. One of the most attractive parts of a show is the anticipation of not knowing what will happen next, and this novelty is often lost as seasons progress. I don’t know if this is partially because we get used to the arc of a show and it feels more predictable or if this is because the content loses its uniqueness, but I really enjoyed thinking about this concept and applying it to my own experiences.

    Arianna Gershon

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