Monday, 20 June 2011

Stupid is as stupid does

Well done everybody. If you’ve ever tuned into Geordie Shore, even if it was just morbid curiosity getting the better of you, give yourself a pat on the back. You helped make it one of MTV's biggest hits of the year. Building its scheduling around the age-old supply and demand model, the channel has decided that the inexplicable popularity of this Raiders of the Lost STD means there’s a hunger for more of the same. So they’re quickly lining up a new spin-off, called ‘Mersey Shore’ (*sigh), to prove that anything Newcastle can do, Scousers can do worse.

Following on from The Only Way Is Essex, Made in Chelsea and the like, these regionally-themed 'scripted reality' shows are now popping up all over the Sky+ EPG like a juicehead’s bacne. And with the US version, Jersey Shore, still going from strength to steroid-fuelled strength, there are no signs of the relentless production line slowing down any time soon. So what if the cast has all the intellectual heft of a barely sentient drip-tray? As long as we display an insatiable interest in their boozy misadventures, the cameras will continue to roll.

Everyone knows that The Wire is the best TV show ever made, but who wants to wade through 60 episodes of hard-hitting drama that feels like studying for a degree in social sciences? Geordie Shore and its ilk are entirely different beasts - even basic motor skills would render most viewers as over-qualified.

Critics have long argued against the dumbing down of our TV shows, making the nickname ‘the idiot box’ seem increasingly prescient. But according to a new study by Markus Appel, a psychologist at Austria's University of Linz, it’s not just the programmes that are getting stupider. The viewers aren’t too far behind. We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that every time we get drunk, we lose precious brain cells. Now, it seems that reality TV is having the same effect, dropping our IQ several points every time we switch on to switch off.

The process is called media priming, and relates to the notion that the things we watch, read and hear exert an influence over our emotions and behaviours. To demonstrate the effect, Appel’s gave one group of volunteers a fake screenplay about a stupid football hooligan. The lead character gets pissed, misunderstands things, starts a fight and sleeps through the following day (don’t be surprised if Danny Dyer’s agent has expressed an interest).

Meanwhile, a second, control group was given a similar script, only in this version, the protagonist does nothing stupid. Once they’d finished reading, the subjects were subjected to a multiple choice general knowledge quiz. The researchers weren’t entirely surprised to discover that "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.”

In light of these findings, Joanne Cantor, a member of the American Psychological Association, explained “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. 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." The same fundamental principles apply for shows about people who could lose a battle of wits against a bucket of krill. And the more you watch, the more detrimental the effect.

Twenty five years ago, Stephen King published a short story called ‘The End of the Whole Mess’, about two brothers who attempt to find a cure for human aggression. Using a unique compound discovered in the water supply of a small town, the men engineer a volcanic blast to get their mysterious panacea airborne. The experiment initially proves successful, but with an unforeseen side-effect, as the entire world develops early-onset Alzheimer's.

Maybe there's a danger that the opiate of the masses is starting to have the same impact. These shows are easy to watch because they don't require us to think. And before too long, we won't be able to. So try the off-switch before it's too late. It might just save your life.

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