Think watching the Guidos on Jersey Shore or the bickering socialites on Real Housewives is just harmless distraction? Think again. While critics have long warned that watching reality TV does little good for our intellects, a new Austrian study bolsters that theory with research. A concise guide.
Is Snooki making me stupid?
In a way. The study explored a concept that researchers call "media priming," says Melissa Dahl at MSNBC. That means that what we watch, listen to, and read has an effect on our behavior and emotions — "perhaps more than we realize." So watching someone on TV can actually influence your cognitive performance. "In other words, you are what you watch."
How did they study this?
Researchers at Austria's University of Linz had groups of subjects read different versions of a screenplay about a "foolish soccer hooligan" named Meier. In one version, Meier wakes up, goes to a bar, gets very drunk, goes to a soccer game, gets into a fight, comes home, and sleeps through the entire next day. "Substitute the soccer game for a night club," says Dahl, and it reads just like "the televised daily shenanigans of Snooki or The Situation." Another version left out some debaucherous details of Meier's day, while the third version was rather boring — Meier didn't misbehave at all. The subjects were then given a multiple choice general knowledge test to gauge how the particular story they'd read had affected their thinking.
Subjects who read the first version — in which Meier acts "stupidly" — performed worse than participants who read the third version, which contained "no reference to his intellectual abilities." Any specific form of entertainment leaves our brains "predisposed in [its] direction," says psychologist Joanne Cantor, as quoted by MSNBC.
So I'll start acting like a Real Housewife if I watch the show?
"If you've been experiencing the urge to assault a close friend or wax your sisters' nether regions, we may have found the culprit," says Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel. But media priming can also have positive effects: If an opportunity to behave generously presented itself, you'd be more likely to take advantage of it when you'd just seen a movie about "really altruistic people" than if you'd just watched one "about selfish people," says Cantor. Empathetic people are most affected by media priming; so as long as you don't consider Snooki a kindred spirit, says Hartmann, you should still be able to "ward off stupidity."