Media Psychology: Can Watching ‘Jackass’ Turn You Into One?

“You are what you watch”

Did you see that movie about the moron? If so, it may have negatively impacted your own intelligence, according to new research from Austria.

By Tom Jacobs

You are what you watch — or so suggests new research that linked a lowering of general knowledge to exposure to idiotic behavior in the narrative form. (Paramount/Wikipedia)

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From reality television to dumb-and-dumber films, contemporary entertainment often amounts to watching stupid people do stupid things. New research suggests such seemingly innocuous diversions should have their own rating: LYI.

As in: Watching this may Lower Your Intelligence.

A study from Austria published in the journal Media Psychology found students performed less well on a general-knowledge test if they had just read a short screenplay about an idiotic thug. This suggests stupidity may indeed be contagious — particularly if it is presented in narrative form.

The research by University of Linz psychologist Markus Appel is the latest to explore the behavioral consequences of media exposure. As we’ve reported, a large body of scholarship has linked the playing of violent video games with increased levels of physical aggression.

With video games, of course, the player is literally in the center of the action. But as Appel points out, something similar occurs with traditional storytelling, as readers or viewers identify with the characters. His study is the first to find such identification can apparently impact cognitive performance.

Appel’s experiment featured 81 students at an Austrian university (mean age of 26). Some of them read a four-page screenplay in which the characters’ intellectual abilities could not be determined. Others read either a two- or four-page screenplay focused on a “xenophobic and aggressive soccer hooligan.”

Half of those who read the story about the thug — who spends his time picking fights and getting drunk — were given special instructions beforehand.

“While reading this movie script,” they were told, “it is your job to make clear differences between yourself and the main character.” Specifically, they were asked to underline all passages in the text where the central character acted in a way they would not.

Afterward, all the participants completed a challenging multiple-choice test measuring general knowledge. The 30 questions focused on a variety of topics, from geography to physics to art.

Those who read the thug-centric story, and received no special prompting, scored significantly lower on the test than those who read the neutral story. But for those who were instructed to note the differences between themselves and the central character, this difference evaporated.

“Our results indicate that the recipients’ mindset critically determines priming outcomes,” Appel writes. Those who consciously distanced themselves from the character avoided the unfortunate results of identifying with him.

This was a small study, and one could argue that a test of general knowledge isn’t the same as a test of intelligence. And there’s no reason to think this contagion is long-lasting.

But the results support the notion, proposed by S. Christian Wheeler of Stanford University, that while a portion our self-concept is stable and unchanging, another portion fluctuates in response to environmental cues. As we noted a few months ago, exposure to cleanliness-related products such as hand sanitizers seems to prompt support for political conservatism.

The research raises the intriguing question of whether this effect would work in reverse. Does reading about or watching an extremely smart character — say, Hugh Laurie’s House — produce a spike in intelligence? Hard to say, but if you have some complex thinking to do, you might want to pop an episode of the drama into the DVD an hour ahead of time.

“Narratives tend to make people ‘walk in someone else’s shoes,’” Appel notes. Since that experience can be temporarily transformative, you might want to make sure the characters you follow have IQs higher than their shoe size.

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