Stupidity appears to be contagious, and you can catch it from the media you consume. Researcher Markus Appel had college students read a story about a “foolish soccer hooligan” who got drunk, got into fights, etc., or a more neutral story without the dumb behavior.

Subsequently, the students were given a general knowledge test. The subjects who read the story about the stupid character scored lower on the test than those who read the neutral story.

Media Priming

In short, reading about a dumb person made the students dumber themselves. Appel attributes this is due to “media priming.” By consuming media about a stupid person, the subjects were themselves pushed in that direction.

So, TV shows like Jersey Shore and movie like Dumb & Dumber render their audiences less intelligent, at least for a while.

The news isn’t all bad. First, most priming effects are short-lived, so as far as we know small doses of Snooki aren’t causing permanent brain damage. Second, the researchers also conducted a variation of the experiment in which the subjects reading the foolish hooligan story were told to think about the differences between themselves and the dumb character were more or less immune to the increase in stupidity.

So, be careful what you read and watch. Got a big test coming up? Perhaps watching An Incredible Mind or a History Channel special on Leonardo da Vinci instead of an old Jim Carrey flick would be a good idea. (Actually, the literature seems a bit mixed on the positive priming aspect; an older study that tested priming with “Albert Einstein” yielded lower test results.) The one thing that worked in Appel’s experiment was consciously analyzing the negative behavior in the story and contrasting with oneself; in some cases, these subjects not only resisted the stupidity priming but outperformed the control group. If you must watch movies or TV shows about dumb people, even if it diminishes your enjoyment a little, take a minute to think about their behavior and contrast it with your own.

Read the paper, published in Media Psychology, here: A Story About a Stupid Person Can Make You Act Stupid (or Smart): Behavioral Assimilation (and Contrast) as Narrative Impact.

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