I was browsing my Facebook news feed yesterday when I saw that someone I know from college had linked to this article on the MSNBC website: “Watching ‘Jersey Shore’ might make you dumber, study suggests.” The description underneath the link read, “Take note, fans of mindless reality shows like ‘Jersey Shore': New research suggests watching something dumb might make you dumber.”
At that point, I should have thought to myself, “I have a lot of work that I need to get done today. I probably should not read this article and risk getting very worked up over what will likely be a really painful misrepresentation of psychological research.”
Oh, if only I ever actually thought that way. But alas, I do not. So I clicked on the link.
The new research in question comes from a scientific article published in Media Psychology this month, titled “A Story About A Stupid Person Can Make You Act Stupid (or Smart): Behavioral Assimilation (and Contrast) as Narrative Impact” (PDF available at the link). But before getting into a discussion about this study (and the MSNBC article about it), I first need to explain the findings of two famous studies that were conducted by Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues back in 1998. These psychologists sought to answer one simple question: When we think about stereotyped social groups, are we then “primed” to act in accordance with these stereotypes? Essentially, will thinking of Jersey Shore cast members make us act as dumb as they do?
It was a simple question with two completely contradictory answers. In this particular study, participants were primed with the concepts of either “professor” or “soccer hooligan” (priming in this case means that the participants were told to write for five minutes about the lifestyles, characteristics, and general traits of these people), and then tasked with answering a series of Trivial Pursuit questions. Those who had been primed with “professor” did a significantly better job, while those primed with “soccer hooligan” did worse, therefore supporting the idea that these stereotypes were activated in people’s brains, and people then behaved accordingly.
But that’s not all. Dijksterhuis and colleagues then designed a second set of studies, based on an earlier paper by Paul M. Herr. In Herr’s study, he found that people who were asked to judge the hostility of a fictional character named “Donald” were more likely to judge Donald as hostile when they had been primed with ‘hostility,’ but less likely to judge him as hostile when they had been primed specifically with Hitler. As Herr reasoned, priming someone with a general concept makes someone more likely to see that concept in the things around him/her or generally act in that manner. However, when you prime a specific, extreme example of that concept, it evokes a comparison: “I don’t know much about Donald, but he can’t possibly be as hostile as Hitler, so he must not be so bad.” In a similar vein, the Trivial Pursuit researchers decided to see what would happen to people’s behavior when they were primed with specific exemplars of “intelligence” (or “unintelligence,” as the case may be). Some participants were primed with either “professor” or “supermodel,” while others were primed more specifically with either “Albert Einstein” or “Claudia Schiffer.”1
Sure enough, when people were primed with “professor” or “supermodel,” those primed with “professor” did better on the Trivial Pursuit task, while those primed with “supermodel” did worse. The participants primed with specific people, on the other hand, showed effects similar to the Hitler study: Those who were primed with Einstein did significantly worse at answering the trivia questions, while those primed with Claudia Schiffer did better.
These effects, otherwise known as assimilation and contrast effects, have been established, validated, and well-known in social psychology for a while. When you prime general concepts, people act more in line with those concepts. When you prime specific, extreme exemplars (like Hitler or Einstein), people compare themselves to those extremes, realize that they come up short, and act less in line with the concepts that they embody.
Returning to the present day, my background knowledge about this research made the MSNBC article especially confusing (and infuriating). Based on the logic of assimilation and contrast effects, one would expect that thinking about “reality TV stars” would make someone perform worse on a Trivial Pursuit task, but thinking about (or watching) specific, extreme exemplars, like Snooki, should prompt a contrast effect that would actually make a participant do better.
So where exactly did the flawed logic in this MSNBC article come from? Did the fault lie with the journalist, or with the study authors?
First, we need to look at what the new paper in question actually did. In the new Media Psychology paper, the researcher, Markus Appel, asked participants to read about the delinquent behavior of a “soccer hooligan” named Meier and then answer Trivial Pursuit questions. Yes, this seems eerily similar to the studies that were already conducted 15 years ago — down to the identical use of the phrase “soccer hooligan.” But, in contrast with the earlier Dijksterhuis studies, Appel changed three crucial things. First, rather than ask participants to write about the target prime for five minutes as the Dijksterhuis team had done, the participants simply read about the character and his behavior. Secondly, the author claimed that he was using an “exemplar” (i.e. Meier), yet he was not replicating Dijksterhuis’s contrast effects when participants merely read about the hooligan-ish Meier. And thirdly, to successfully obtain a contrast effect, Appel proceeded to explicitly direct half of the participants to focus on all of the ways in which they differed from Meier.
Essentially, this paper ended up showing the same thing that the original Dijksterhuis studies found. When the participants simply read about Meier, they did worse on the Trivial Pursuit task. When they were instructed to contrast themselves with Meier and focus on all of the ways in which they were different from him, they did better. Appel argues that his study shows that we do not naturally engage in contrast effects after all, since the contrast effect was only present in his study when participants were explicitly instructed to compare themselves with the character, and those who merely read about Meier behaved more in line with his stereotype.
But…here’s the thing. The exemplars in the original studies were Claudia Schiffer (who, the authors explain, was considered to be the “ultimate” example of a supermodel in the Netherlands at the time), Albert Einstein, and Hitler. HITLER. Herr, Dijksterhuis, and colleagues hammer in, over and over, how important it is that the individual people used to obtain contrast effects truly be EXEMPLARS of the traits that you are seeking to test. In this new study, who is Meier? Meier seems pretty dumb, admittedly. But is he as dumb as Hitler is hostile? Is he as dumb as Einstein is smart? Are participants walking into the study with a lifelong mental association between Meier and “dumb” akin to the lifelong mental associations that they would have had between Hitler and “hostile” and Einstein and “smart”? Frankly, I have my doubts.
It’s clear that there are already issues with Appel’s classification of Meier as an “exemplar.” I would argue that Meier isn’t “exemplary” enough to encourage a contrast effect, so it makes perfect sense that unless participants are explicitly directed to contrast themselves with him, they would exhibit tendencies to adopt his stereotype, much like the participants who were primed with “professor,” “supermodel,” or “soccer hooligan” in the original studies.
But then MSNBC decided to cover this paper, and things got even worse. In Appel’s defense, he never, at any point, mentions Jersey Shore in his article. This comparison was entirely due to the creative license of the MSNBC journalist. As far as I can tell, the logic behind the journalist’s “Jersey Shore Makes You Dumb” argument came from the idea that simply reading about Meier led participants to do worse on the task, and that the Jersey Shore cast seems to act a lot like the fictional Meier, so therefore people watching Jersey Shore will become dumber. This is where my big issue with the article comes in. Meier may have been called an “exemplar,” but as I’ve already mentioned, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our mental concepts of this fictional “Meier” character are so inherently, strongly tied to “stupidity” that reading about him would encourage a contrast effect in the same way that Einstein, Schiffer, and Hitler do. But you know who might be a strong exemplar of dumb reality TV stars, one with an association so strong that it might actually encourage a contrast effect? SNOOKI. Which means, and I will reiterate, there is no scientific reason to believe that watching the Jersey Shore will make you dumb. In fact, psychological research would actually suggest the opposite.
So, right off the bat, the MSNBC article blatantly ignores prior research on the contrast effect (which, I will mention to Appel’s credit, was cited extensively and accurately in the Media Psychology paper).
But oh, there is still more wrong here. I’d also like to call attention to one very important part of the Media Psychology paper that was clearly misread: THE TITLE. Note that the title says that a stupid person can make you act stupid (or smart). It doesn’t say that it will actually make you stupid or smart. And there’s a very good reason for that.
As Dijksterhuis and van Knippenburg note in their original paper,
Effects on performance, specifically improvements, are obviously constrained by objective limitations (e.g., it seems unlikely that one could all of a sudden play the violin merely upon hearing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in E), but given natural within-person variations in task performance over time, theoretically, perceptions or mental representations of superior or inferior performance may have corresponding effects on the person’s performance. Thus, if one is a reasonably skilled violin player, one may indeed play better after hearing Beethoven’s violin concertos (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenburg, 1998, p. 867).
No one has ever claimed that merely thinking about smart people will magically implant previously-unknown trivial knowledge into your head, nor will thinking about dumb people make the knowledge that you have go away. Rather, exposure to certain concepts may activate mental associative networks that result in subtle effects on how you access, utilize, and manipulate already-existing related abilities. So, as Dijksterhuis and van Knippenburg note, being exposed to the concept of “professor” might prompt you to “allocate [your] effort differently…use smarter and more varied strategies for problem solving [by strategically using pre-existing knowledge to successfully eliminate multiple choice options that you know are wrong]…[or] have an altered ‘feeling of knowing,’ which may result in a different use of [your] own knowledge” (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenburg, 1998, p. 874-875). Conversely, being exposed to the concept of “hooligan” (or, theoretically, “reality TV star” or “Jersey Shore resident”) might temporarily cloud your judgment, make you lose confidence in your talents, and generally impede your ability to effectively problem-solve.
In other words, when something activates the concept of “intelligence” in your brain, it might push you to think about things differently, utilize better problem-solving strategies, or simply feel more confident, which might then make you better able to access knowledge that you already have and correctly answer trivia questions. But no, reading about professors will not “make you smarter,” just as watching Jersey Shore will not make you dumber.
Not for any reasons based on psychological research, at least.
Maybe I’m a little biased. I am a blogger and a science writer, but I am also a social psychology graduate student. I conduct research. My friends conduct research. I may take it a bit more personally than most when a scientific finding is misrepresented in the media. But when I saw this link on Facebook, or read through the comments on MSNBC, it was clear that there were only two main takeaways that the general audience seemed to get from this article: “WHY WAS MONEY WASTED ON THIS STUPID STUDY THIS IS SO DUMB PEOPLE WHO WATCH JERSEY SHORE ARE PROBABLY JUST DUMBER TO BEGIN WITH” or “OF COURSE WATCHING JERSEY SHORE WILL MAKE YOU DUMBER BECAUSE THEY ARE IDIOTS.”
No discussion of contrast effects. No understanding of the psychological mechanisms. No nuance. And a conversation that revolved entirely around the Jersey Shore, when those two words were never even mentioned in the original article.
The graduate student in me felt angry. The science journalist in me, who really wants to see scientific findings being conveyed interestingly yet accurately to a lay audience, really just felt sad. The original paper had nothing to do with the Jersey Shore. The original paper didn’t even suggest that the Jersey Shore would represent a good example of the finding. The Jersey Shore was actually a terrible example to illustrate the real finding. In reporting on the article, the finding came second to sensationalism, and readers were left with no idea what the finding actually was.
This is not what I want science journalism to be.
Can we please do better?
It gets worse.
Since originally posting this, I have found several other links discussing this study. Well, sort of. Here are two such links: Newsflash: Watching “Jersey Shore” Could Make You Stupid… and Watching Jersey Shore Could Make You Stupid. These “journalists” have taken irresponsible reporting even further than I had originally feared; they seem to have made up their own study in which “focus groups” either did or did not watch Jersey Shore or not and then did worse on tests of general knowledge. Please note that this is in no way what happened in the actual study. You know, the one where participants read about the soccer hooligan named Meier.
1. Poor Claudia Schiffer. She seems like a nice woman, and I loved her cameo in Love Actually. I really hope she doesn’t know about this study.
Appel, M. (2011). A story about a stupid person can make you act stupid (or smart): Behavioral assimilation (and contrast) as narrative impact. Media Psychology, 14, 144-167.
Dijksterhuis, A., Spears, R., Postmes, T., Stapel, D., Koomen, W., Knippenberg, A., & Scheepers, D. (1998). Seeing one thing and doing another: Contrast effects in automatic behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (4), 862-871 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1992
Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (4), 865-877 DOI: 10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.525
Herr, P. (1986). Consequences of priming: Judgment and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51 (6), 1106-1115 DOI: 10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.2066