Miller-McCune, whose tagline reads, “Smart journalism. Real solutions,” recently published an article entitled, Dumb Entertainment Can Have Impact Your IQ: Can Watching ‘Jackass’ Turn You Into One? (I am not making up that first part.) So you’d think it would be an article describing a study about the effects of either entertainment or watching a movie on one’s IQ.
Except it’s nothing of the sort.
The study described in the article looked at 81 college student responses to reading a story about a man with a directionless life, and then gave them a short, general knowledge survey the researchers made-up just for this study.
If you’re having a hard time seeing how this relates to watching a movie or measuring one’s IQ, then you’re not alone.
Now, to be fair, the short story was given to the research subjects as a “movie script,” but that hardly is the same as watching a movie. Reading is not the same as watching a television show or a full-length movie.
But the general knowledge survey was not devised or pre-researched with any psychometric testing, and has no correlation with IQ. In fact, the author of the article on the Miller-McCune site — Tom Jacobs — sheepishly admits as much, “This was a small study, and one could argue that a test of general knowledge isn’t the same as a test of intelligence.”
One could argue? That’s not an argument — that’s an actual fact. Until you do the research that shows they are one and the same, drawing the conclusion they are is sloppy — not smart — journalism.
Last, the point of the researcher devising the story was so that the subjects would read a story about an obviously “stupid” person. But the research describes the story as such:
Meier gets up in his flat. He looks at his calendar and has trouble understanding the day’s motto. He dresses like a right-wing skinhead. Upon leaving his apartment, he runs into an argument with his neighbor, a Turkish immigrant. He then meets his friends in a bar and gets drunk. Later he joins his fellow hooligans at a soccer match and gets into a fight. He sleeps through the following day. On the next morning he learns from a newspaper that the match he attended was lost by his team and gets angry.
This sounds like a man who is a bit aimless and directionless in life, who has a good social life, and enjoys both drinking and sports. Stupid? Maybe not the brightest bulb on the tree, but it doesn’t really come across strongly in the description of the story. Instead, it paints the portrait of an individual who is more of a loser than someone who is stupid.
The distinction is an important one, because it completely confuses and colors the results. The finding isn’t so much that reading a story about someone who is stupid makes you more stupid. It’s that reading a story about someone who appears to be more of a complete loser than you makes you less able to immediately afterwards answer a general knowledge quiz.
The researchers did not measure other factors that could also account for the differences they found, such as empathy or outright disgust. Stronger emotional responses to a character could result in a person being primed to be in a more emotional response state, than a cognitive, rational response state. If you give someone a cognitive task after priming them for an emotional response, it’s not surprising they might do worse on the cognitive task.
Confounded research reported by sloppy, bad journalism = less respect for journalists.
Could the equation be any simpler?