Media Reality

We hear a lot about the “dumbing down” of the media and we nod wisely as we agree and complain what it is doing to other people's children. The media moguls tell us that they are giving us what we want in the tabloids, whether papers, talk radio or cable/broadcast news. At the same time, financial constraints push good drama off our screens to be replaced by the cheaper casts of ‘reality’ programs. But is there an inevitable reinforcing feedback mechanism working on all of us here?

So we have a major question hanging in the air.  As we read, listen or watch this media content that we huff and puff about becoming dumber everyday, are we becoming dumber as we consume it? Quickly, we will all scream of course not, not me, it’s them out there. Appel in his paper in the current issue of Media Psychology set out to test this (1).

There were 81 participants in their mid twenties who were given versions of a movie script to read. Both scripts were about a 35-year old guy who is extremely unintelligent and a right-wing skinhead to boot. He meets his friends in a bar and gets drunk. The bad version then has him being a soccer hooligan who gets into a fight at the match and misses the ending. He’s so drunk that he sleeps through the next day and then gets mad when he heard his team lost.

The participants were split up into groups. Some had one script some the other. Some groups were asked to note what the differences were between them and Mr. Meir the soccer hooligan. After all this excitement, all the participants were given a 30-question general knowledge multiple-choice examination.

The “dumbest” were the people who were not asked to contrast Mr. Meir’s behavior and their own and the “very dumbest” were those who read the whole sorry tale without any instructions.

The author says that ‘the short term influence on cognitive functioning is a promising new field of enquiry.’ I’m sure that we all hope that the effect is short term, but what about the continual media priming of a plethora of junk for our daily consumption? We know that constant repetition works as a brain washing technique. But if it’s a wide range of rubbish that we consume, does that mean that we’ll all forget who painted Geurnica, or why?

  1. M. Appel, Media Psychology, 14, 144, (2011)

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