Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Can Watching ‘Jackass’ Turn You Into One?

• June 07, 2011 • 4:25 PM

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

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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.