June 17, 2011 at 9:20 AM ET
Take note, fans of mindless reality shows like "Jersey Shore": New research suggests watching something dumb might make you dumber. In other words, you are what you watch.
It's called media priming -- the idea that the things we watch or listen to or read influence our emotions and our behavior, perhaps more than we realize. This particular study may be the first to use fictional characters in a narrative to show an effect on people's cognitive performance, says lead author Markus Appel, a psychologist at Austria's University of Linz.
In an experiment, volunteers were told to read a fake screenplay about a character they refer to as a "foolish soccer hooligan." (A subsequent finding of the study: Austrians are adorable.) The story describes a day in the life of a man named Meier: He wakes up, reads (and misunderstands) the message in an inspiration-of-the-day calendar, meets his friends in a bar and gets very drunk. Meier then goes to a soccer game, gets into a fight and comes home to crash; he sleeps through the next day. (Substitute the soccer game for a nightclub, and you have something very similar to the televised daily shenanigans of Snooki or The Situation.)
Some of the 81 volunteers were instructed to read a longer version of the "soccer hooligan" story, while others read a shorter version -- and the control group read a rather boring story in which Meier does nothing stupid. Then researchers gave the volunteers a multiple choice general knowledge test, including questions like, "What is the capital of Libya?" and "What kind of speed is expressed by the letter 'c' in physics?" and "Who painted La Guernica?"
To be fair, these are tough questions to answer sans-Internet regardless of whether you've just watched something vapid like "Toddlers and Tiaras." But, as the researchers write, "participants who read a narrative about a stupidly acting soccer hooligan performed worse in the knowledge test than participants who read a narrative about a character with no reference to his intellectual abilities.
"The present study is, to our knowledge, the first to show media priming effects of story characters on cognitive performance," they explain in the report, which was published online this month in the journal Media Psychology.
Think you're too smart to be influenced by the media you consume? That's cute. Anything we see -- a person on the street, an ad on TV, a character in a movie -- has some influence on our next thoughts, emotions or actions, simply because it's top of mind, says Joanne Cantor, a psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association who has studied the emotional and behavioral effect of TV and movies.
“What you’ve been thinking about recently or seeing recently (is) at a higher level in your consciousness, so your brain is kind of predisposed in that direction,” says Cantor, professor emerita of communication arts and outreach director center for communication research at the University of Wisonsin-Madison. “So if you’ve just seen a movie about really altruistic people and you get an opportunity to behave altruistically, you’ll probably do it, rather than if you’ve just seen a movie about selfish people." (So fans of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" aren't particularly charitable? Noted.)
Cantor explains that empathetic people are likely to be especially affected by media priming. "But also, people who expose themselves to TV more are probably going to be more affected,” she says. Something to think about next time you find yourself lured into an hours-long marathon of your favorite reality show. On the other hand, some of us could likely use more gym and laundry, if not tanning, in our lives.
Have you ever noticed a TV show, movie or book influencing your emotions or behavior -- in a positive or negative way? Leave a comment telling us about what happened.
Follow msnbc.com health editor Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.
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