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Thursday, May 10, 2007
Some of the discussion around my previous post about pornography recapitulated a commonly held belief about the effect of media on society, and one that I find -- as I stated in the post -- to be emotionally satisfying but intellectually adolescent (see for a perfect e.g. this paper by somebody I really hope was in high school). Now for some mythbusting.
MYTH #1: People imitate behaviors observed in fictional media.
Nope. Not important ones, they don't. Let's repeat this: We do not not learn how to behave by emulating FICTION.

Q. Really, UD? That's odd. So how do we really learn to behave, if not from fictional media?
A. We learn behavior by watching real people, IN PERSON, whose behavior we emulate -- consciously or not -- out of respect, admiration, envy, peer pressure, or whatever. This mechanism, Social Proof(1), is programmed into us by millions of years of evolution. We learn from family, schoolmates, community members, teammates, coworkers, etc.
     Barring illness or psychopathology, people learn to ______ by watching other people around them ______.

Q. Why is this myth so convincing, or pervasive?
A. Several reasons:
  1. Because we see serious, bad behaviors in life that mirror things we've seen in media -- and we get the causation exactly backwards. Media will reflect life back at us, not the other way around.
  2. Because sometimes we try out in real life the behaviors we observe in media. But it's still the reactions of our peers (social proof) that determine whether the behavior is accepted. In fact, we usually only test behaviors that we think have a pretty good chance will be accepted, because rejection is wicked painful. For example! We might see a cool character smoking in a movie, and we might think we started smoking as a direct result -- but smoking still falls within the accepted behavior of some subset of our community.
  3. Because sometimes, for shock value, we emulate behaviors we know will be rejected. But those behaviors are still instinctively calibrated to the values of the community in which we exhibit them. The SUPERFICIAL aspects of the behavior (getting face piercings, wearing stockings on your arms) are imitated, but the underlying rebellion is not transmitted through media. Nor will rebellion die without a media-approved mode of expression.
  4. Because parents worry about kids, and it's easier to place blame for undesirable behavior on what seems like a FIXABLE cause. But no matter what you do to the media, children will continue to smoke, drink, fuck, and use drugs, just as they always have. Some kids will die as a result of these behaviors. Acknowledging the real causes of these behaviors (biology; assertion of independence; boredom; social proof from family, peers, and community) is a painful admission of powerlessness.
  5. Because those EXTREMELY RARE occasions when people have obviously copied something awful depicted in media provide extra-vivid, though statistically insignificant, evidence. But violent anti-social behavior is usually caused by mental illness, extreme stress, or trauma. Not media.
  6. Because our tendency toward Excessive Self-Regard(2) makes us assume other people are stupider, weaker, or more suggestible than we are. The most fascinating thing about this whole concept is that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, seems to think that they personally are susceptible to the effects they are so worried about. It is always some "other," some fantastical hypersuggestible victim, who is the subject of concern. Think about this, because it is straight-up retarded, people. If you still don't get it, try this illustrative little test:
    Do you feel that you are you more likely to...
    • ...backstab your friends after watching Melrose Place?
    • ...discriminate against (or torture) Arabs after watching 24?
    • ...commit suicide after watching Heathers?
    • ...murder someone after seeing Man Bites Dog?
    • ...try heroin after watching Trainspotting?
    If not, why do you think other people will be?

MYTH #2: People become "desensitized" to real-life violence after exposure to violence in media.
Wrong. Our reaction to images of violence is almost entirely dependent on whether we believe the violence is or REAL or FICTIONAL. We can watch a hundred grisly murders in a movie without even flinching, because our brains are not easily fooled into thinking fictional images are real. But images of non-consensual or criminal acts of violence often produce strong visceral reactions of disgust, anger, and fear.
     Violence in REAL life is so upsetting that we instinctively act to stop it. What prevents people from intervening (other than basic fear of personal harm) is almost always behavior learned through more Social Proof (see Kitty Genovese, or the way kids learn not to intervene in schoolyard fights by watching the slightly older kids scream "fight! fight!").

Q. Why is this myth so convincing, or pervasive?
A. Two reasons:
  1. Because people DO become desensitized, after exposure to violence in media, to violence in media. That is, depictions of extreme acts don't change what is acceptable in real life; they change what is acceptable in future depictions.
  2. Because people DO become desensitized to real-life violence after exposure to real-life violence. This happens to people in situations of imprisonment, wartime, extreme poverty, pervasive abuse, etc. Another example: real crime scene investigators get desensitized to violence through exposure to it. But no amount of watching C.S.I. will prepare you for the shock of seeing a real dead body.

MYTH #3: Pornography teaches men to disrespect, abuse, or objectify women.
False. The social proof that causes such behavior is not cued by sight and sound alone. It's a feedback loop that occurs in real space and time. The brain is not so easily fooled into mistaking fictional actions -- no matter how realistic -- for real social proof.
     People learn to disrespect, abuse, or objectify women from their families, communities, teammates, co-workers, or frat brothers.

MYTH #4: Images in media create unrealistic standards that are harmful.
True! Standards of beauty, wealth, happiness, and success in media show us unattainable ideals and create powerful feelings of inadequacy and failure. That for sure is true.
     Seeing skinny women in media doesn't change women's behavior, or else every woman in America would be skinny and wear the same clothes as celebrities (in general, women dress like, and have body fat indices similar to, the women around them). Media standards just make us feel terrible about ourselves most of the time. Which, I'll grant, is still a pretty bad effect.

MYTH #5: Images of sex and violence in the media are responsible for the decline of morality in this country.
Wrong. The much lamented "decline of morality" is caused by the fact the loudest contemporary proponents of "morality" are filled with obvious misery, judgment, anger, and fear. Who wants to emulate behavior that leads to that?
     "Morality" has become synonymous with prudery through association with these people. This has not always been the case. I wish those people would shut up so that people could learn that ACTUAL morality leads to love, acceptance, and happiness.

(1) Read that Charlie Munger article I keep talking about.
(2) I said READ IT, I said!


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