How Television Can Make You Believe Things That Aren't True
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Our beliefs about the world are shaped by many factors. The courses we took in college. The lessons we learned from our families.
And, of course, the prime-time courtroom drama we watched a couple of weeks back.
Newly published research suggests nuggets of misinformation embedded in a fictional television program can seep into our brains and lodge there as perceived facts. What’s more, this troubling dynamic seems to occur even when our initial response is skepticism.
That’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal Human Communication Research. It asserts that, immediately after watching a show containing a questionable piece of information, we’re aware of where the assertion came from, and take it with an appropriate grain of salt. But this all-important skepticism diminishes over time, as our memory of where we heard the fact or falsehood in question dims.
A research team led by the University of Utah’s Jakob Jensen conducted an experiment in which 147 students watched a specific episode of the David E. Kelley drama Boston Legal. Immediately afterward, they completed a survey in which they revealed how strongly they related to the characters, how closely they felt the show reflected reality, and the degree to which they felt transported into the narrative of the show.
Half also completed a separate set of questions, including their opinion on the effectiveness of EpiPens — devices that deliver a measured dose of ephinephrine to counter the effects of a severe allergic reaction. In the episode, use of the device failed to stop such a reaction, resulting in a child’s sudden death — a highly unlikely scenario that outraged an advocacy group.
The study participants were emailed a follow-up survey two weeks after watching the show. Those who did not receive the second set of questions, including the one on the effectiveness of EpiPens, filled it out at that time.
The results: “Individuals queried two weeks after exposure to the television program were more likely to endorse the false belief than those queried immediately after exposure.”
These findings are consistent with those of a 2007 study, which similarly found the persuasive effects of fictional narratives increase over time. In that case, the misinformation was embedded in a written story.
“Two studies have now shown that fiction (written and televised) can produce a delayed message effect,” Jensen and his colleagues write. This is troubling, they add, noting, “People are bombarded by mass media every day all over the world, and a sizeable (and growing) body of mass communication research has demonstrated that much of this content is distorted in a multitude of ways.”
Indeed, ABC — the same network that ran Boston Legal — was widely criticized in 2008 when an episode of another legal drama, Eli Stone,suggested a link between autism and a vaccine. While this link has been definitively debunked, this research points to one reason it and other falsehoods continue to circulate.
The “sleeper effect” — the notion we can hold onto a piece of information while gradually forgetting it came from an unreliable source — was first proposed in the late 1940s, and a meta-analysis in 2004 confirmed its validity. Importantly, Jenkins notes that in both his study (featuring misinformation conveyed in a fictional television program) and the 2007 paper (where a falsehood was presented as part of a written work of fiction), the size of this effect was greater than that found in the 2004 meta-analysis.
This suggests to him that delayed-message effects “may be larger and meaningfully different” in cases where the misinformation is presented in fictional form. In other words, we may be particularly susceptible to believing falsehoods originally conveyed to us through fiction, perhaps because the context — the TV episode or short story in question — is more likely to fall from our minds.