Research: Junk TV Can Make People Less Intelligent

Perhaps it’s similar to junk food, where it can worsen people’s physical condition.

A raft of new research shows that watching junky cable and other lowbrow TV is actually making people dumber — literally lowering their IQs.

In research published in the American Economic Review this month, Italian researchers showed that people with greater access to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment TV network, Mediaset, in the 1980s were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi later in later elections. Furthermore, people with greater exposure to Mediaset as children were “less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”

From the American Economic Association’s writeup of the research:

In 1980, Berlusconi was an up-and-coming media entrepreneur hoping to fill a void in the television market, which was dominated by a state-owned network driven by an educational mission. Catering to a growing middle class eager to spend on entertainment, Berlusconi spent the decade rolling out Mediaset to new markets throughout the country.

At the time, Mediaset’s programming did not suggest that he was using it as a propaganda tool for political gain. Nearly all the shows were shallow, critically poorly received, and purely for fun with no educational value. Mediaset did not have a news show component until 1990. Yet, the authors found very real effects of their influence on viewers’ political sympathies.

“The language codes that were popularized by TV also made people much more susceptible to the populist party because they used very simple language,” Ruben Durante, one of the paper’s coauthors, said. “They used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.”

Andrea Tesei, another coauthor, spoke to The Washington Post’s Nikita Lalwani about some of the findings.

Lalwani: You show that exposure to entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the very old. Were they affected in the same way?

Tesei: For the elderly, the effect was happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward Berlusconi.

Unlike the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on — there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet. We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.

The results also applied to another Italian populist politician, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, that was not as ideologically right-wing as Berlusconi. “The fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message,” Tesei said. “Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic rhetoric.”

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