Influence of Entertainment Project

Film

 

Project Overview

This project is focused on understanding the influence of entertainment on public opinion and, as a result, the cultural expectations we have as a society. From previous research we believe there are at least four ways that entertainment may influence public opinion:

  1. The empathy machine: We know that putting ourselves in other people’s shoes is essential to building the bonds of empathy that are foundational to a healthy, pluralistic society. It is possible the most important way entertainment influences public opinion is by exposing individuals to a greater diversity of people and ideas than one could ever experience directly, and that such exposure serves to expand the range of people and ideas that are included in our normative view of society.
  2. Belonging and opportunity: Whereas the empathy machine hypothesis is about how I see other people, it is possible that entertainment also influences how I see myself. One could imagine that the more I see people like me in the stories we choose to tell, the more likely I would be to feel a sense of dignity, pride, and belonging in society. Moreover, those stories may reveal life opportunities that I didn't know existed, and therefore expand the range of possibilities that I perceive as open to me.
  3. Perceived majority: Research suggests that entertainment shapes our view about how many people share our beliefs and values. The more particular values or ideas are represented in entertainment, the more we are likely to believe that they are widely shared by the majority in society, regardless of whether this is true. In other words, entertainment shapes what we think most people believe, even if we do not share that belief. This is important because our prior research has found many areas in society (e.g., education, views of success, immigration, criminal justice) today where there is a clear majority that privately holds one view, but these same people incorrectly believe that they are a small minority in the country, and that most people in society are against them.
  4. Changing beliefs: Entertainment may also directly shape an individual’s personal opinion on a given subject. This would be the most profound possibility, for better or worse, in the sense that it would mean that rather than being a force for expanding, moderating, or augmenting existing beliefs, entertainment is better understood as a driving force for establishing or changing our core beliefs, values, and preferences.

As a first step toward developing a more systematic and scientific understanding about the ways that entertainment influences public opinion, we believe it is valuable to understand what effects people think entertainment is capable of having. In addition to surveying the general public, we are interested in understanding the views of leading experts in the entertainment industry. What do they believe the influence of entertainment is on public opinion? How does their personal view shape the work that they do? To address these questions we are currently interviewing a select number of producers, directors, writers, and showrunners, across film and television, to understand their perspectives. These insights will be used to inform the development of a large-scale survey of the entertainment industry that, together with results from our survey of the general public, will give us a better sense for current perceptions about the influence of entertainment.

To learn more about the Influence of Entertainment Project please contact Dr. Todd Rose (todd_rose@gse.harvard.edu).