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25 April 2019

Controversial television shows can make you ruminate about moral issues

People often assume that controversial television shows with graphic or violent content have negative impact on viewers, for example, because they normalize violent behavior. A study in Journal of Media Ethics explores if morally ambiguous and controversial content can in fact motivate viewers to think about different moral perspectives in complex situations - so called moral rumination.

Take aways

  • People appreciate a storyline that makes them think about moral issues.
  • Controversial media content can be more positive than people think, because:
  1. It can function as a “morality sandbox” in which to play with or test out moral concerns.
  2. It supports moral rumination and this can lead to personal moral growth.

Study information

  • Who?

    162 undergraduate students (mean age: 20, 60% female)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    Participants viewed a part of an episode of the series ‘The Sopranos’, which featured a graphic representation of rape. Afterwards participants filled out a questionnaire that measured, among other things, how much they liked the character and the episode, to what extent they were mentally involved in the storyline and why they did or did not agree with the choice made by the character.

Facts and findings

  • Participants who were more involved in the storyline, engaged more in moral rumination, which subsequently related to higher appreciation of the episode.
  • Previously held beliefs about for example vigilante justice and punishment, did not affect moral rumination.
  • Participants ruminated not because they were concerned about the characters, but because moral conflicts presented in the storyline prompted this response.