If you ever feel vaguely guilty about the vast amounts of television you watch, might I suggest you cling to the findings of this study, published last week in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. In it, the authors claim that watching high-quality television dramas —things like Mad Men or The West Wing —can increase your emotional intelligence. That is, watching good TV makes you more empathetic.
In the paper, the authors describe two experiments. In one, they asked about 100 people to first watch either a television drama (Mad Men or The West Wing) or a nonfiction program (How the Universe Works or Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back). Afterward, all of the participants took a test psychologists often use to measure emotional intelligence: They're shown 36 pairs of eyes and are told to judge the emotion each pair is displaying. The results showed that the people who'd watched the fictionalized shows did better on this test than those who watched the nonfiction ones.
It's a similar finding to a widely reported 2013 study that claimed that reading literary fiction is linked to better scores on this empathy-measuring test. The authors of that study and this new one argue that a complex fictional narrative forces the reader or viewer to consider a problem from multiple perspectives; further, since not every character's emotion is explicitly spelled out, the audience must do some mental work to fill in those gaps, making a guess at the inner lives of the character.