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 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

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.