Patricia Blaze Hugenberger (2012) The Influence of Individual Psychodynamics on Reactions to Soal Opera Characters and Story Lines


The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between the idiosyncratic psychodynamics of the viewer and his or her attraction to characters and plot lines in soap operas.  Soap operas are defined here as dramatic open-ended narratives, containing numerous characters and storylines.  They are also presented in daily afternoon serial installments.  In this study, reactions to two types of shows are examined:  American soap operas such as General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, and All My Children, and the popular night time serial drama, Lost.   The impetus for this project originated from a curiosity about the attraction of millions of viewers to the soap opera genre, and the belief in the importance of understanding the role of idiosyncratic psychodynamics in the field of media studies.
The literature review addresses literary, historical, sociological, psychological and psychoanalytic perspectives of the soap opera genre.  In addition, it includes the psychoanalytic perspectives of the understanding and use of drama in everyday life.   Soap opera literature in particular, offers a foundation for understanding the shows and the people who watch them.  The work of Freud (1905/1953), Winnicott, (1953) and Green (1978) on play, the use of drama as adult play, and the concept of transitional space contribute to the interpretation of the data.  Vaillant (1977) and Soldz and Vaillant (1998) provide a base to consider the manifestations of defense in the data.

The contributions of Holland (1975, 2011, 2000) and Luborsky and Crits-Christoph (1998) are used to formulate the methodology for this project.  Holland’s work reflects the focus of this study in that it emphasizes idiosyncratic psychodynamics which effect a person’s reaction to a work of literature.  Luborsky and Crits-Christoph developed the Relationship Anecdotes Paradigm (RAP) interview format for data collection which is used in this study.  Luborsky and Crits-Christoph’s Core Conflictual Relationship Theme method was used to interpret the data.  Additional repetitive themes, symbolic meaning of words, slips of the tongue, and quality of emotional expression were also identified.  Analysis of the data involved the creation of a leveling schema of both qualitative and quantitative data.   One of the limitations of this study is the small size of the sample which consists of only ten participants.  The fullness of data afforded by the analysis of the RAP interviews, however, is a good fit for this size sample.

The results of this study underscore several features.  Connections between individual psychodynamics and characters in soap operas and Lost are present for all of the participants.  These aspects mirror wishes, conflicts, disavowed parts of the self, and repetitive themes that are highlighted in the personal stories.  Although it was expected that there would be a connection between aspects of the individual in the stories and their descriptions of characters, this study demonstrates these direct links by using a methodology that provides a solid foundation for the analysis of individual dynamics.  A secondary finding is that all participants also identify therapeutic benefits of soap opera viewing.   In comparing the participants’ connections to characters in the two types of shows, a strong cathexis to the soap opera characters is found.  There is a lesser connection to characters in Lost.   A bias of the interviewer’s interest in soap operas may be a factor in this finding.

This study addresses psychodynamic conceptualizations and the benefits and possible deficits of some types of television viewing.  This study also highlights the views of Yates (2011) in her role as representative of the research network, Media and the Inner World, in that it demonstrates how the field of psychoanalysis can and should contribute to the understanding of the interplay between the unconscious mind and the powerful and ubiquitous world of television.