Stay Free! magazine


Stay Free! Daily: media criticism, consumer culture and Brooklyn curiosities from Stay Free! magazine

Got a blog tip? Contact us

« When satire becomes redundant | Main | Another Victory: Media De-Consolidation »

Does watching TV make you stupid?

UPDATE: See followup posts here and here.

Or just stupid enough to buy Steven Johnson's Gladwellian premise that Watching TV Makes You Smarter?

Johnson's entire argument rests on the fact that TV programs have grown more complex over time. As evidence, he cites one of his favorite programs -- 24 -- which includes far more characters and intersecting storylines than old-school dramas like Bonanza.

To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show... to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships.

First off, Johnson assumes that all viewers watch TV like he does, and for the same reasons. It's a safe bet than most viewers aren't getting as much from the complex narratives as an intellectually curious guy like Johnson does. If the show's producers took out the violence and stock jingoism at the heart of the story, they'd probably lose most of their audience.

I'll grant that television shows today may have more narrative compexity than shows in the past but that in itself proves nothing. Television shows are also infinitely more stimulating. If you shout "hey" and someone doesn't repond, you shout it louder, faster, and in more varied ways until they do. Surely something resembling this is behind some of the success of the shows Johnson describes.

Not all of the shows Johnson considers mind-enabling rely on violence and gore, but most of them do. And most of them also share other important characteristics that Johnson neglects -- characteristics that television producers have adopted to give their shows an intelligent gloss. Fast-talking, for instance. When ER premiered, its characters spoke so fast that its scripts were nearly 20 percent longer than the average hour-long drama at the time. Rapid-fire dialogue was quickly copied by other shows -- West Wing, Gilmore Girls -- precisely because producers realized that fast-talking people appear smarter.

Shows like CSI and ER pepper dialogue with legal and medical jargon for similar reasons. We humans tend to confuse certain social cues as signs of intelligence. These have a basis in reality, of course, but they are essentially stereotypes that allow us to make snap decisions -- decisions that social psychologist Ellen Langer called mindlessness long before Malcolm Gladwell coined "blink." Johnson seems to have mistaken some social cues himself, believing that appearing smart and being smart are one in the same.

Johnson also doesn't mention quick-cutting, which fuels not only 24 but dramas like ER. You want to know why old shows like Bonanza are dull? Quick cutting is a large part of it. Quick-cutting appeals to us for reasons rooted in our biology, our animal instincts. Jump cuts and screen violence command our attention by triggering vestigial fight-or-flight response. It's a response based on fear, and fear responses are practically the antithesis of cognitive thought -- they are not only automatic and intuitive, they actually deter analytical thinking. Violence, especially. Johnson has studied human brains. He should know this.

I get the feeling that Johnson would also interpret the busy headlines and graphics that clutter TV news screens as signs of our ability to "process" more "content."  More info may be thrown at us, but that doesn't mean we use, retain, or even recognize it.

Johnson, ironically, seems to have fallen into the same trap his opponents -- and by this I mean critics of television and tv violence -- in that he makes false assumptions about cause and effect: TV narratives are getting more info-dense and complex, he observes, therefore TV must be making viewers smarter. But he only bothers looking at shows themselves; he doesn't even attempt to look at the audience. 

But let me move now to a nerdier argument. Summing up his thesis, Johnson writes:

The quickest way to appreciate the Sleeper Curve's cognitive training is to sit down and watch a few hours of hit programming from the late 70's.... The modern viewer who watches a show like ''Dallas'' today will be bored by the content -- not just because the show is less salacious than today's soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but also because the show contains far less information in each scene, despite the fact that its soap-opera structure made it one of the most complicated narratives on television in its prime. With ''Dallas,'' the modern viewer doesn't have to think to make sense of what's going on, and not having to think is boring. Many recent hit shows -- ''24,'' ''Survivor,'' ''The Sopranos,'' ''Alias,'' ''Lost,'' ''The Simpsons,'' ''E.R.'' -- take the opposite approach, layering each scene with a thick network of affiliations.

Television programming in America is and always has been designed to deliver audiences to advertisers -- that is it's primary purpose. I say this because it's difficult to understand commercial television without also looking at advertising.

In the early days of advertising, sellers spelled out details in ads using language we now consider outrageously dull; these long-winded, simple narratives now strike us, like early television, as mind-numbing, even campy. Some of this was due to ad agency's lack of insight into consumer psychology. But more significantly, advertising hadn't yet blanketed the culture; people weren't yet accustomed to its conventions. As soon as the public recognized ad cliches, those cliches become less involving, less attention-grabbing. So advertising has continually created new conventions -- new conventions that work, like stereotypes, as a sort of shorthand. And so it is with television. A key to grabbing attention is keeping things new new new.

Johnson points to the fact that TV programming no longer uses metaphorical "red arrows" to point out exactly what is happening on screen. But this doesn't prove audiences are getting smarter. Rather, it suggests that after years of watching this stuff, we're more familiar with it.

Take pharmaceutical ads. Due to FDA restrictions, marketers can't spell out the uses of a drug without listing side effects. But pharma commercials have now been around long enough that it doesn't matter. Audiences have learned that if they see someone in a grassy field or with a dog, the drug is for allergies; if the commercial features a handsome middle-aged couple in any kind of romantic pose, its selling Viagra or one of its competitors. We don't come to these conclusions through deliberate analysis; the recognition strikes us in an instant, like a reflex.

I don't watch enough TV to list conventions that viewers may use to interpret shows such as 24, but obviously a big help in understanding television comes from watching a lot of television. Watching tv makes you more familar with tv, of course, but that doesn't mean you're smarter. That's sort of like saying that 4-year olds who recognizes the McDonald's logo -- and who can conjure up all all kinds of foods, smells, and cartoonish characters when asked about that logo -- are smarter about restaurant chains.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Johnson defines quality, intelligent television as that characterized by complex narratives; multiple and multi-dimensional characters; and open-ended storylines. In other words, the best TV is like Shakespeare. This, I find truly bizarre, because if TV can teach us anything (and I think it most certainly can) it's not by being a substitute for literature, but by doing things literature can't do.

The sad and -- I'd argue, dangerous -- truth behind all of this cheerleading for pop culture is that, figuratively speaking, no one is reading literature anymore. The time we spend with TV and other electronic media is replacing instead of complementing our reading. The decline of English skills in the TV age is addressed elsewhere in Stay Free!, by critics such as Neil Postman and in a brilliant forthcoming book by Leslie Savan (which I'll have more to say about later).... so I don't want to go into the argument here. In lieu of a catchy conclusion, I will therefore leave you with two artifacts from Jane Healy's book Endangered Minds.

The pages below are taken from Stanford Achievement Tests for school children -- the one of the left, for fourth-graders in 1964; the one on the right, for sixth-graders in 1988. This may come as news to Mr. Johnson, but television shows aren't the only things that have changed since the 1960s.

* * *

Followup, May 7, 2005

Wired magazine asks: Why are IQ scores rising around the globe? The story is by Steven Johnson, the same guy who wrote Why Television Makes You Smarter (which we discussed here and here). Both pieces reflect the arguments Johnson makes in his new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You.

I found the Wired story interesting, but don't buy it. Even if we accept that IQ is a viable measure of intelligence; that the different IQ tests created over time measure the same quantity; that the tests are implemented objectively, with samples representative of the population at large, there are problems with Johnson's argument. For one, he oversimplifies the IQ findings (New Scientist, 3/2/02) and overstates his case. As Johnson acknowledges, the significant leaps in IQ scores are found mostly in a certain kind of problem solving: one measuring visuo-spatial relationships. Researchers point to a number of possible explanations for the changes in IQ, but Johnson ignores those. He also ignores all countervailing data (for instance, the fact that the same researchers have found *declining* IQs in industrial nations over the past five years), and attributes all positive changes to media use.

My main problem with the article, though, isn't in the details but with the suggestion that we should "Stop reading the great authors and start playing Grand Theft Auto."

Though it may surprise a few of you, I don't doubt that TV has helped us improve our faculty for visuo-spatial relationships. My concern is that by shifting our attention from the page to the screen -- by watching more than we read -- we are losing more than we gain. Obviously, television does some things better than print. If you want to teach people how to tie a Windsor knot, showing a video beats handing out written instructions, which would make a relatively straightforward task seem like a confusing, complicated exercise.

But what about philosophy? Which medium better prepares us to understand, I dunno, utilitarianism? Or tort reform, intellectual property law, or biochemistry?  Reading and writing help us acquire the ability to reason, to analyze arguments, and to spot errors in truth and reason. Television is not only inferior for communicating complex ideas, it works against them.

I remember watching the first Bush/Gore debate with several friends in 1999 and all of us felt that Bush won. Gore came off like a real tightass: patronizing, uncomfortable, fake. Bush was a guy's guy, someone you'd enjoying chatting up, even if you disagree with his politics (and all of us did). Months later, I read a transcript of the same debate and was blown away by how different it seemed. Gore responded to questions in complete sentences; he stated his positions and supported them with clear, salient evidence; he pointed out contradictions in Bush's platform without succumbing to the easy impulse to "go negative." Bush, in contrast, repeatedly dodged questions by turning them around and by mouthing lines from stump speeches. He demonstrated shockingly little grasp of the issues and spoke robotically in stock phrases ("from the heart," "uniter not a divider," etc.)

Seeing this on TV, I failed to notice the substance of the debate; my experience is far from unique. It's now taken for granted that tan and handsome JFK trumped sweaty, stubbly Nixon in an infamous televised debate, but what is often left out is that the majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.

And remember John Kerry? Part of the reason he lost the election was his inability to conquer television. By making nuanced, complicated arguments, he set himself up to charges of flip-flopping. It's like that old Nickelodeon tagline: You can't do that on television. And the reason you can't do that lies partly in the commercial nature of the medium, but, more fundamentally, in its syntax.

Words and sentences allow us to state explicitly the relationship between things. We can say, for example, "I'm not going to support that campaign finance bill, even though I support campaign finance reform, because that bill will prevent real reform from ever passing."  Or, "If elected, I'll help keep jobs in America by getting rid of loopholes in the tax code that allow US corporations to operate taxfree offshore." On televsion, such statements are reduced to "He is against campaign finance reform" and "My opponent will raise taxes."

Words allow us to specify cause and effect; to state something's relationship to the past or future; to distinguish potentialities from possibilities and probabilities. There's really no way to do this with images; unlike connecting words and sentences, the relationship between images is vague and open-ended. A screen may show and woman crying and then cut to a man on the phone at work. Viewers make assumptions about the connection (romantic relationship? sexual harrassment?), assumptions that have gotten easier over time, as producers have established certain conventions... but there is no "propositional syntax" equivalent to print. (Television includes language, of course, but it is first and foremost a visual medium.)

Television's vagueness, far from being a hindrance, is actually its strength. Television is, after all, primarily an engine for advertising and selling, and advertising relies on the power of suggestion. Companies would sell a lot fewer goods if they had to rely on words. If, instead of showing images of handsome, sultry men, the the makers of Viagra stated outright, "our drug will make you sexy," they'd sell a lot less of it, because the language would ring false. We don't process images in the same way. We don't see an image and think, "Is this true?" or "Does this support the claim?"

* * *

What annoys me most about this whole debate is the way it's framed, as if Johnson and the Wired set are proposing something radical or transgressive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their problem is, what again? People aren't abandoning the great authors for Grand Theft Auto fast enough for them? There's a powerful, "great author" cartel holding pop culture down?

Face it, the people promoting reading habits and advocating limits on the time children spend with electronic media are pretty well marginalized. The only reason to promote television any further than it already it is to make the people who feel guilty about watching feel better about it and themselves. Everything Is Bad for You is self-help disguised as science.

Let's remember that the blog world itself is largely populated by technophiles. Some of the concerns I've expressed about television barely scratch the surface of what you can find in books; the ideas of important thinkers such as Neil Postman are essentially absent online.

So, anyway, I think I'll end this with a plug for Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman is extremely unpopular with the technorati, who tag him as neo-Luddite (which, after all, he was). But Postman is one of my heroes. If you pick up the book, think of him as a kindly old man who may hate your music and your TV shows but who nonetheless has a lot to teach us.

Posted by carrie on 05/01/2005 | Permalink


Johnson must think that people who enjoy Beckett plays are complete morons.

Posted by: Nathan | May 1, 2005 9:50:59 PM

"It's a safe bet than most viewers aren't getting as much from the complex narratives as an intellectually curious guy like Johnson does."

That's a terribly condescending argument. If the viewers are so stupid already, then why do you care whether or not they're reading literature anymore? I mean, they don't understand Beckett anyway, right? Best to leave them alone with their animal instincts and quick-cuts.

Posted by: Intellectually uncomplex masses | May 1, 2005 11:25:03 PM

Either you believe that most Americans are as intellectually curious as Steven Johnson (in which case, you're objectively wrong) or you have completely misrepresented my argument.

Posted by: carrie | May 2, 2005 12:24:15 AM

I understand your critique of aspects of Johnson's claims, but I think you should keep an open mind until his full book comes out - according to his research (which I've only read excerpted in Wired, issue 13.05 - not yet online) human intelligence actually is increasing significantly over the past 50 years. He argues that mass media is helping this trend rather than dumbing us down (a la Postman and nearly any other traditional critic).

Also I have no doubt that the primary appeal of 24 is its complex storytelling - this is what the show is named for, and really the only thing that separates it from other programs. Does it appeal to everyone? Certainly not, but there are many "popular" narratively complex programs, like Lost, Alias, Malcolm in the Middle, and even Seinfeld. It is a trend in the medium - but you're correct that the shows themselves cannot demonstrate their effects. I believe Johnson tackles this larger issue in the book - I'm curious to see where he goes with it.

Posted by: jason | May 2, 2005 8:24:22 AM

[oops - hit post early...]

Carrie writes: "Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Johnson defines quality, intelligent television as that characterized by complex narratives; multiple and multi-dimensional characters; and open-ended storylines. In other words, the best TV is like Shakespeare." Actually, I'd argue that multi-dimensional characters is the only Shakespearean trait you list here, as TV's long-form storytelling offers the potential for far more complexity in form & characterization than a 3-hour Shakespeare play. A better parallel would be a 19th century novel - and yes, the best TV is worth comparing to Dickens or Bronte.

Finally, your headline is quite misleading - the story is skeptical that TV improves cognition; your headline implies the reverse. This is the type of bait & switch logic that typifies a lot of media research - studies prove a weak correlation & get promoted as definitive causality. You say that watching TV makes you smarter at watching TV - might it not be more broadly applicable to understanding narrative in general? Certainly being an avid reader does more than just make you a better reader... why not TV?

Posted by: jason | May 2, 2005 8:43:52 AM

When did we reach the point as a society that we needed to be told that our worst habits are not only harmless but actually good for us? I love my TV, but I can't believe that anything I do so passively is a substitute for either reading or interacting with real people.

Posted by: Charles | May 2, 2005 10:57:39 AM

Carrie wrote: "I don't watch enough TV to list conventions that viewers may use to interpret shows such as 24, but obviously a big help in understanding television comes from watching a lot of television. Watching tv makes you more familar with tv, of course, but that doesn't mean you're smarter."

For a while I was living in Cambodia, in the days before you could easily get non-Khmer TV or find a VCR, at least if you didn't have much money. (This was '95-96 if you're wondering.)

So for almost a year I saw virtually no TV programming except for snippets of CNN or BBC news, and no movies at all. Mostly at night we just sat at the bar. Finally a shop opened where we could rent a VCR and a pile of movies. Yes, we were jonesing.

I found that I had a lot of trouble following the plots of the very middle-of-the-road movies that we could find. So much was assumed between scenes and cuts. I couldn't fill in the blanks fast enough. I would sit there saying, "Why did she do that? How did he get there?" It was infuriating.

Was I out of practice, or had I soaked my brain in too much gin and tonic, and actually become stupider?

Since I doubt my brain is endowed with a special mutant ability to recover from alcohol-related injury (and moreover since we continued to drink gin and tonics at the same rate while we watched the movies!), it was apparent that it was practice.

After a few movies, I seemed to remember how to accept and fill in the holes in the plots, and to make whatever assumptions were necessary to follow them.

I don't think watching those few movies made me smarter, or that anything else did. Movies, TV shows, and literature are all written in a kind of code, code that allows many details, much context and lots of transitory elements to be left out, and it takes both practice and training to decode them.

24 is not TV for smarter people. It's TV for people who are good at watching TV.

Posted by: Rich Garella | May 2, 2005 1:07:32 PM

Charles wrote:
"When did we reach the point as a society that we needed to be told that our worst habits are not only harmless but actually good for us? I love my TV, but I can't believe that anything I do so passively is a substitute for either reading or interacting with real people."

Can you explain how or why watching TV is a "worst habit" or any more passive than reading?

Posted by: jason | May 2, 2005 1:39:16 PM


Thanks for your comments. You raise some good points. My headline was intended as a spoof on Johnson's article.

You're right about Shakespeare. If I ever rewrite this or do a book review, I'll choose a better example.

I hope to write a followup to this later... got a million errands to run now.... I remain open to the idea that tv has the potential to make people smarter. It's just that Johnson's article comes off as cheerleading for new technologies, rather than a serious, balanced critique. But I look forward to reading the book. And I've got the new issue of Wired so I'll check that out; thanks for the tip.

Posted by: carrie | May 2, 2005 2:27:52 PM

Jason wrote: "Can you explain how or why watching TV is a "worst habit" or any more passive than reading?"

The 'worst habit' question is part of the debate here, and I'm not going to get into that in this space. The passivity, though, seems obvious. Reading infinitely more mental participation than watching TV. You have to supply your own inner soundtrack and visuals. You have to make judgments, draw conclusions, keep track of information. There is no 'scary music' cue when the bad guy enters the pages of a book. There is no convenient recap of the plot as at the start of a new episode of West Wing, or even coming back from a commercial break.

Why do you think it's so much easier to watch TV than read a book on drugs?

Posted by: Maria Wood | May 2, 2005 3:45:50 PM

The Intellectually uncomplex masses said: 'I mean, they don't understand Beckett anyway, right? Best to leave them alone with their animal instincts and quick-cuts.'

I just wanted to clarify that my statement about Beckett was not meant to imply anything about people that don't 'understand' his work. I was just using him to mock the idea that the complexity in the narrative of some modern television shows equals intelligent viewers. To me, many of Beckett's dramas (and literature) are quite simplistic in their narrative, if you can even call it that. Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped critics from endlessly dissecting and extracting complex philosphical ideas from them.

My point, in summary, was just that complexity of narrative does not necessarily equal complexity of audience.

Posted by: Nathan | May 2, 2005 5:21:00 PM

To Maria:

"The passivity, though, seems obvious. Reading [requires] infinitely more mental participation than watching TV."

I would argue, though, that the best TV is better than the worst books. A really crappy novel, especially in a particular genre, features all kinds of cues, stereotypes and conventions that enable the reader not to think. I stopped reading detective novels because in most cases I knew exactly what was going to happen and why. Of course, I also have to realise that that's part of the appeal of trashy books, but it still blows away the idea that reading is better *just because* it's reading.

A good TV show will certainly provide musical cues (although it doesn't HAVE to), but it will feature unpredictable plots, non-stereotyped characters and so on, which will force you to at least do SOME thinking.

Posted by: Ms .45 | May 3, 2005 1:43:27 AM

The words "makes us smarter" or "makes us dummer" don't work for me regarding this issue. There are situations where being able to process a lot of stimulus quickly and effectively is appropriate and times when it isn't. And I suspect that watching a series such as 24 for a season instructs your brain on how to find the patterns and nuggets of information you need as quickly as they are presented. What I wonder is if there are types of intense complex stimulation that can become "habit forming?" My son is a gamer, he plays complex and highly stimulating games. I don't believe that his "intelligence" is hurt by it, but I'm seeing his tolerance for other modes of information gathering really declining. He loves stories, we listen to books on CDs, he reads tons of guild history on screen while he's gaming; but says he has come to hate sitting and reading a book. Across all of his classes (he's in high school) he does really well on all class work including tests; in the classroom he's an A student, but homework he finds intolerable. He says it is painfully boring to sit and read and write and he continually forgets to work in. It's not just that homework keeps him from gaming (although that is probably part of it), he has limits to his gaming time and "no screen days." Even on those days he finds reading intolerable.

It feels to me as though the issue is "brain training" not intelligence. Doing any one type of information gathering to the exclusion of other types must, over time, limit one's capacity to function in the full range of information processing circumstances in which you might find yourself. With the new information we have about the rapid growth and honing of teen brains it makes sense to me that a teenager is more likely to see lasting repercusions to a steady diet of high stimulation brain training.

As long as I'm being anecdotal, I might also add that the media experiences that really stick with me (consciously, I can't vouch for my subconcious reactions) are not necessarily the ones that are the most complex, but the ones where my opinion, perspective, or level of understanding of the topic presented is actually changed.

Posted by: Cynthia B-G | May 3, 2005 3:04:05 PM

When you talk about how we fail to "use, retain, or even recognize the clutter" that is thrown at us by television, I believe youre dismissing the very reason that it seems to improve mental acuity. We have become faster at processing large amounts of irrelvant data and spot patterns and find the useful info. The time it would take for me to read all the text on an average home page is noticeable, at the very least, yet, I can find stuff without reading it. This kind of ability gives us speed at doing The Raven IQ tests - the ones that have shown the most marked increase. So, maybe it isn't helping in some ways - but were certainly are getting faster at processing junk. Now all we have to ask is whats happening to everything else - and I haven't heard about it going down.

Posted by: George | May 12, 2005 3:26:20 PM

Thanks for your exellent article. As a churchman, I think often of the tension between image and text. Or image vs. word. People can no longer concentrate long enough to digest a 20 minute sermon/speech. So in response, many clergy speak in soundbytes, over use jokes and illustrations, and now erect video screens upon the altar to show clips from "Ferris Buehler's Day Off."

Images are powerful and beneficial means for communication but they are limited. I posted on my blog once a piece called, "A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures." A painting of the crucifixion can elicit strong emotions, but it can't tell you what the death of Jesus means. Only words can do that.

Posted by: Scott | Jul 7, 2005 8:46:39 PM

Since I should be reading a book right now, I'll stop reading your blog.

Posted by: Dan Simonson, Emperor of the Moon | Aug 15, 2005 1:40:53 AM

I have to comment to the "Church man".
I disagree with what you have to say about images.
Some people are visual learners and remember things by pictures.
I think a picture could describe what the death of jesus means if thats what the pictures intention was.
Words can be abstracted so much and people don't understand what is being said.
I can also argue that images can be this way also.
I am just saying that images can be just as powerful as words can be.

Posted by: linda Price | Apr 13, 2009 9:02:15 PM

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In