The Science Behind Why We Cry Over TV Shows

Why do TV shows make us so emotional? Yeah there’s a case to just put it down to stellar acting, or a killer soundtrack. Maybe you relate to the characters on a personal level because of shared experiences, or maybe – just maybe – you’re a massive crybaby (as expected).

But there’s actually a little more to it than that.

The relationships we form with our fave fictional characters are what psychologists call “parasocial” (meaning one-directional). We know all there is to know about them, but they know literally nothing about us, because (spoiler alert) they’re not real.

“The interesting thing is that our brains aren’t really built to distinguish between whether a relationship is real or fictional,” Jennifer Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma told TIME. “So these friendships can convey a lot of real-world benefits.” Some of which include increased self-esteem, decreased feelings of loneliness and a better sense of belonging, Barnes says.

So yeah, the characters aren’t real but this doesn’t mean the emotions we feel are in any way manufactured – it’s quite the opposite really. Like for example if a writer of a show decides to mess with the wellbeing of a character, like having their SO dump them, or even killing them off, you’re left with a real emotional response, explains Barnes.

“When you spend an hour every week with a person for an entire television season, they really do become a sort of friend – so it’s totally normal to feel upset over them,” she says.

So are there benefits to crying over TV shows?

Signs point to yes.

Barnes’ research suggests that fictional TV dramas have the ability to actually improve the way its watchers read the thoughts and feelings of other people. This basically suggests that getting emotional over TV improves emotional intelligence, a sentiment we are very much on board with as a way to justify our viewing habits.

In a 2015 study, Barnes and her co-author discovered that viewers of popular drama The Good Wife were better at identifying human emotion from photographs better than those who preferred watching non-fiction, documentaries or didn’t watch TV at all.

“If you become ‘friends’ with someone whose life experience is different from yours or who is in a different social category, it can help you better understand that group of people,” says Barnes. Even if this comes from a fictional pal, it can have some of the same effects, which is good, right?

Well, yes and no. It is possible to become too attached, and it’s important to have just as much empathy towards real people, including real people you don’t know personally. Sounds pretty straightforward, but is an issue more common than you might think.

In Barnes’ study, participants have legit said that a theoretical death of a favourite character would be sadder than the theoretical death of a real-life classmate or co-worker. Yikes.

So is crying over a TV show healthy?

Yeah, but everything in moderation! For example, if you have underlying mental health issues, binge watching some super sad or triggering stuff, can seriously impact you. And if you’re still feeling down well after viewing, it might be a problem.

“If you’re feeling sad about it several days or weeks afterward and it’s causing real-world distress, that might be a sign that you’re perhaps too invested in what’s going on,” says Barnes­­­.

So next time you shed a tear over your favourite show and someone mocks you for it, just remind them that they’re an unemotional robot that has no empathy, and that you’re the superior being. Or just watch TV by yourself, your call.


Bradley is a writer from regional NSW and he didn’t come here to make friends, he came to win. He tweets infrequently to his 43 followers @bradjohnston_.

Main image: Legally Blonde / Type A Films Marc Platt Productions