Take Two #128: Media Consumption and Us

By Kyra-lin Hom

Most of us have heard the argument that consuming violent media generates a violent mindset if not violent behavior. Meh, the evidence is inconclusive. But while the jury has so far declared a mistrial on the specific pros and cons, it is known that observing and interacting with violent media does stimulate the same areas of the brain as real physical violence. This same phenomenon is why watching professionals or performing visualization exercises does actually improve performance. Why then hasn't this principle been applied to other social elements? With the rate of media consumption per American predicted to rise to 15.5 hours a day by 2015, isn't this an important question?

(And for those who are wondering, it is considered possible to consume more than 24 hours of media a day because of simultaneous data streams such as watching Youtube during muted commercial breaks of a TV program.)

One recent research study by the University of Michigan did approach this issue. U of M researchers polled 625 college students (392 female) specifically looking for the effects of media on our perceptions of love, relationships and romance. After results were in, the researchers made three conclusions.

One: students who watched more romantic films were more likely to believe love conquers all. Two: students who watched more “marriage-themed reality shows” such as “The Bachelor” were more likely to believe in the “idealization” of love. This means they supported ideas such as love at first sight and perfectly matched soul mates. Three: students who watched more TV sitcoms with their commonly cynical attitudes towards relationships were the exact opposite. These students tended to view romance negatively and not agree with phrases that would indicate “idealization.”

It seems to me that further research is necessary to determine causation (whether watching these shows caused these attitudes or whether these shows were watched because they aligned with already established beliefs), but I would bet money that there's a little of both. A case of self-perpetuation. And with all the choices out there now, it's remarkably easy for people to never have to extend beyond their comfort zones. It is in fact more likely that people will use their choices to only tunnel in deeper.

Homophily means “love of the same.” It is the well established social phenomenon wherein individuals are most likely to associate and bond with people similar to themselves. Essentially, we like what is familiar. That is true regardless if its people, culture, belief, what have you. It's all the same concept, and professional data crunchers are using it in combination with all of our online habits to know us better than our families, our best friends and even ourselves. Scary but true.

With no information on thousands of individuals but their Facebook Likes, a joint study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was able to predict age, gender, race, occupation, sexuality, relationship status, education level, intelligence, personality (according to the Big 5), political lean, substance use and abuse, and even the marital status of the subjects' parents. To show you how random these associations can seemingly be, consider that one of the Likes most strongly associated with intelligence was the Liking of curly fries. (For more information watch Jennifer Golbeck's Ted Talk online.)

We as a society have a relationship with the digital world that is vastly outstripping our ability to understand it. That isn't to say we should fear technology, but we should acknowledge the complexity of our ties to it and the potential fallout of those ties. If we're going to be cyborgs, after all shouldn't we at least understand the basics of our working parts?

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