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 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

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.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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