The Psychology of Soap Operas – The Mind and the Melodrama

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Why the Soaps Hook Us
Photo bycottonbro studio

Soap operas, also known as daytime dramas, have been a staple of popular culture television programming for decades. These ongoing serial dramas have captivated audiences with their complex and intertwined storylines, relatable characters, and dramatic plot twists. But what is it about soap operas that makes them so addictive and why do people keep coming back for more? Turns out, there is a unique and subtle formula of psychological elements that keep viewers engrossed in these long-running dramas.

Soap operas have a long and rich history in popular culture, dating back to the 1930s when they first began airing on radio. These early soap operas were sponsored by cleaning product companies and were thus called "soap operas." The name stuck and the genre has been known as such ever since. As television became more prevalent in the 1950s, soap operas made the transition to the small screen and became a staple of daytime programming.

The Thrill of the Cliffhanger

One of the defining characteristics of soap operas is their use of ongoing storylines and cliffhangers. These elements keep viewers coming back for more and create a sense of anticipation and excitement. The cliffhanger ending, in particular, is a hallmark of the genre and was later incorporated into the nighttime dramas in shows like Dallas and Dynasty that mirrored the daytime soaps. Anyone remember the iconic ‘Who shot JR?’ cliffhanger from final scene of the 1979–80 season of Dallas? The nagging question captivated us for 8 months from March until November when finally in the fourth episode of the fourth season titled 83 million American viewers tuned into one of the most watched television broadcasts of all time for the big reveal.

Some of the most popular American soap operas include:

  1. Days of Our Lives - This long-running soap opera has been on the air since 1965 and is known for its complex and dramatic storylines, as well as its multi-generational approach to storytelling. The show has featured many well-known actors over the years, including Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn.
  2. The Young and the Restless - This soap opera has been on the air since 1973 and is known for its glamorous and wealthy characters, as well as its focus on the business world. The show has been credited with helping to launch the careers of many actors, including Eric Braeden and Melody Thomas Scott.
  3. General Hospital - This soap opera first premiered in 1963 and is known for its dramatic storylines, cliffhanger endings, and its use of music in storytelling. The show has been credited with launching the careers of many well-known actors, including Anthony Geary and Genie Francis.
  4. As the World Turns - This soap opera ran from 1956 to 2010 and was known for its use of ongoing storylines and cliffhanger endings. The show was also known for its multi-generational approach to storytelling and its portrayal of social issues.
  5. All My Children - This soap opera ran from 1970 to 2011 and was known for its portrayal of social issues, as well as its use of music in storytelling. The show was also known for its complex and dramatic storylines and its use of cliffhanger endings.
  6. The Bold and the Beautiful - This soap opera has been on the air since 1987, known for its glamorous and wealthy characters and its focus on the fashion industry. The show is known for its use of music in storytelling, as well as its use of cliffhanger endings.
  7. One Life to Live - This soap opera ran from 1968 to 2012 and was known for its use of ongoing storylines and cliffhanger endings, as well as its portrayal of social issues. The show was also known for its multi-generational approach to storytelling.
  8. Guiding Light - This soap opera was created as a radio serial in 1937 and ran as a television drama from 1952 to 2009. It was a trailblazer for the industry, known for its use of ongoing storylines and cliffhanger endings, as well as its multi-generational approach to storytelling. The show also tackled controversial and socially relevant issues.

The Emotional Connection

Soap operas create an emotional connection between the characters and viewers. This effect is largely achieved through several factors: compelling storylines, intense dialogue, and engaging characters who viewers can relate to. As the storylines progress all over days or weeks, the audience will become emotionally invested in both the narrative arc and individual character journeys.

Beyond the emotional connection to individual characters, one of the most notable aspects of soap operas is their ability to create a sense of community among viewers. These shows often air daily, and fans tune in regularly, for years or even decades, to follow the ongoing storylines and get to know the characters. Notoriously complicated storylines twist and turn as new nuances open up opportunities for gossip and reminiscing. This sense of continuity and familiarity has led to the formation of dedicated fan communities, who discuss the shows online and in person, and even organize events and conventions.
Photo byAndrea Piacquadio

Identifying with Characters

Perhaps the most compelling psychological element of soap operas is how viewers identify with the characters – both heroes and villains, saints and sinners. The writers of soaps make sure that each character carries with them certain qualities which are recognizable in people from all walks of life, from teenagers to grandmothers. People tend to identify with one or two core characters as they watch their stories unfold, which adds an intriguing layer of vicarious living. Whether its relatability or aspiration, viewers will find somebody within a series they can either pin their hopes on or use as a reference point for what to expect from others around them.

“Supercouples," the popular and iconic couples who have been paired together on a show are a staple of soap operas. These couples often have a significant impact on the story's development, and fans often watch the show to follow their favorite couple's story. Some iconic "supercouples" from soap history include:

  1. Luke and Laura Spencer from General Hospital - This couple is considered to be one of the most iconic and popular supercouples. They first met in 1978 and their romance was a central storyline of the show for several years. The couple's wedding episode in 1981 was watched by 30 million viewers and remains the highest-rated hour in American soap opera history.
  2. Bo and Hope from Days of Our Lives - They first met in 1983 and the couple's wedding episode aired in 1986.
  3. Jack and Jennifer from Days of Our Lives - They first met in 1989 and the couple married in 1991. They won Soap Opera Digest Awards for Favorite Supercouple in 1991 and Best Love Story in 1992.
  4. Nick and Sharon from The Young and the Restless - They first met in 1994 and married in 1996. Following this the couple’s storyline followed a pattern of periodically breaking up and getting back together.
  5. Ridge and Brooke from The Bold and the Beautiful - This couple first met in 1987 and their first wedding occurred in 1989. Since that time they endured multiple break-ups and reunions.
  6. Tad and Dixie from All My Children - They first met in 1988 and their romance, like most soap romances was a chaotic mix of ups and downs. The couple's wedding episode aired in 1994.
  7. Victor and Nikki from The Young and the Restless - They first met in 1980 and their wedding episode aired in 1984. Since then they have married and divorced - or split up - in some form or fashion in a continuous cycle. They and their romance remain a fundamental part of the Y&R storyline today.

These are just a few examples of some of the most popular "supercouples" in soap opera history. These couples have captivated audiences with their dramatic and romantic storylines, and have become an important part of the cultural landscape. They are still remembered fondly by fans today, and their popularity continues to influence storylines and characters in the current soap operas.

The Serial Nature

Soap operas have also been known for their use of multi-generational storytelling - they don’t just tell stories, but they tell really long, ongoing stories. The characters and their families often span several decades and multiple generations, which allows the shows to explore complex relationships and family dynamics (e.g., refer to the supercouples noted above). This style of storytelling creates suspense which keeps people hooked and makes them want to see how the story ends. We love to follow characters who struggle with problems just like ours, or face situations we only dream about experiencing ourselves.

The Pattern Recognition

Viewers of soap operas often develop what psychologists refer to as “pattern recognition” when it comes to the genre. As viewers watch over and over again, they come to recognize familiar elements in each episode such as character types and tropes, recurrent themes and plot devices, which all together build an understanding of certain narrative conventions within the genre. This familiarity drives people’s desire to keep watching as they can typically predict what will happen next and become more deeply embedded in the world of the show.

The Power of Plot Twists

Plot twists are an important part of any good soap story structure. They keep viewers enthralled by surprising them at just the right moments and preventing boredom by continually challenging expectations with unexpected or outlandish scenarios which defy logic but still hold a level of believability which keeps us hooked week after week. This element also plays into our natural curiosity about “what happens next” as no matter what transpires, we’re always curious about how things turn out for each character involved in whatever situation has presented itself. These resolution arcs provide viewers with escapism from real life and let them experience both drama and redemption.

Escapism from Real Life

Like with all good storytelling, viewers can escape from real-life issues by retreating into the comfortable and familiar world created by their favorite shows. This allows a reprieve from daily struggles without judgement or criticism from others. Soap opera storylines always revolve around drama that many people can relate to on some level because its origin lies within everyday human experiences, such as relationships with family members, striving for success despite encountered obstacles, heartbreak etc. This provides a sense of comfort as everyone has experienced pain and triumphs in some form throughout their own lives. Seeing similar (albeit often exaggerated) journeys being followed on television can give us that we're never alone when it comes down dealing with life’s struggles.
Photo byKarolina Grabowska

The popularity of soap operas can be attributed to their relatable themes and characters, their ability to tackle controversial and socially relevant issues, and their use of music in storytelling. Soap operas also have a unique ability to create a sense of nostalgia and familiarity, which allows them to build a loyal fan base that spans multiple generations. In recent years, the popularity of soap operas, and the traditional pattern of daily consumption of them, has waned as streaming services and other forms of entertainment have become more popular. However, despite this decline, many fans still tune in to watch their favorite shows. Love ‘em or hate ‘em these serialized dramas have played an important role in shaping the way we think about and consume media and they continue to maintain a universal appeal as an integral part of popular culture today.

Comments / 1

Published by

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

More from Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Comments / 0