As Christmas nears, your intake of festive movies is most likely peaking. If you haven’t bunkered down for your annual viewing of Love Actually and The Holiday, is it even the festive season? Or, maybe you prefer something a little more modern and are getting stuck into Netflix’s various cheesy Christmas offerings like The Princess Switch or Holidate?
Either way, there’s something about a Christmas-themed romantic comedy that really hits you at this time of year. In fact, every holiday season, more festive rom-coms are released and we can’t get enough of them. But, what effect do these corny and often earnest films have on our brains?
Well, at times, these romantic Christmas films can have a negative impact on our minds, says clinical psychologist and adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University, Caroline Fleck.
“The problem is that although we all acknowledge that rom-coms are fanciful, we often fail to appreciate the extent to which they are subtly informative,” Fleck told Bustle. “Grounding fairy tales in reality is like my day job, and it’s made harder every year at Christmas when Love Actually starts playing on loop.”
While you might not actually expect someone to show up on your doorstep holding giant flashcards with romantic words written on them à la Love Actually, these types of films can make it hard for people to distinguish what is considered healthy versus the often unrealistic tropes carried out in festive films.
If you really think about the behaviour of Mark (Andrew Lincoln) in Love Actually and the fact that he’s confessing his love to his best friend’s wife, it’s pretty messed up. But, his declaration of love is deemed romantic because of the way he expresses it.
“What’s sad about this work is the observation that in unknowingly striving for the unattainable, so many of us are failing to attend to, recognise, and seek the types of romantic experiences and relationships that are healthy, genuine, and representative of real love,” Fleck said.
But, not all hope is lost when it comes to rom-coms. In fact, researchers from the University of Buffalo found that watching the cheesy and predictable storylines of rom-coms can actually make you a better person thanks to the concept of “moral intuitions”.
The researchers looked at how the repeated exposure to various film genres, including rom-coms, would affect sensitivity to five moral intuitions, which according to Medical Daily, included harm/care (aversion to the suffering of others), fairness, loyalty, respect for authority and purity (both biological and metaphorical).
87 university students participated in the research and were asked to watch a double bill of films each week for five weeks. A quarter of participants were asked to exclusively watch rom-coms, while another quarter watched action films. The remaining participants watched both genres in a 60/40 or 80/20 ratio of rom-com to action movies.
Researchers compared moral questionnaires the participants filled out before the study started to those completed after the film watching and found that the group who exclusively watched rom-coms was more sensitive to four out of five moral intuitions including harm/care, fairness, loyalty and respect for authority (with purity the exception). This was not the same for any of the other participants, which suggests that the sensitivity of the rom-coms was negated by the intense action films.
So, while consuming Christmas rom-coms this festive season, try to remember that these films are constructed in a way to make you feel something and while this can be positive, as the research points out, the goings-on in these films should be taken with a grain of salt.