Steven Johnson says watching TV makes you smarter  APR 24 2005

Steven Johnson says watching TV makes you smarter. The argument is that media has had to get more cognitively challenging to hold the attention of viewers. Evolutionarily speaking, attention is the scarce commodity that creates competition here, driving adaptation in the direction of more social and narrative complexity to hold that attention.

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There are 18 reader comments

Richard06 24 2005 9:06AM

A load of ca ca.

I'm 53 and I can say without a doubt that over the course of my lifetime I've watched less and less TV. Broadcast TV has gone so lowbrow, is so awful it's sickening. However, in more than one instance my wife and I feel we live in a different world from most Americans.

I am dyslexic and ADD and am not a fast reader so one would think TV would be just the thing for me. But, I have a brain and I know information is more complex than what is presented on TV so prefer to get most of my information elsewhere.

There is no way that reducing things to sound bites makes them more cognitively challening and TV news and entertainment programming seems to have taken the complexity and nuance out of information.

The question is, which came first: cultural ADD and general stupidity or dumbed down TV?

People can always turn the channel or turn it off. Producers can slowly and gently move away from sensationalism and MTV-like production values to get and hold attention.

Where's Marshall McLuhan when we need him.

debian_43 24 2005 9:43AM

I would say the 'cognitive challenge' is actually trying to keep pace with the constant subject switching.

I believe this bombardment of information which people are being subjected to at an increasingly rapid rate does not necessarily translate into viewers learning more, simply because the content to which they are being fed is often no more than typical popculture tripe.

Kyle06 24 200510:06AM

It is as equally important to be a critical viewer as it is a critical reader. What message are the programs conveying? Who is the intended audience? Does this audience include me? There's something on television for everyone.

Sometimes I feel like watching Nova and sometimes I feel like watching The Simpsons. There are different shows for different moods and interests. Finding it is another story. Tivo helps here.

If the majority of television really is low-brow, then that's what the market is demanding. Change the culture and you'll change TV.

Richard23 24 200510:23AM

If the majority of television really is low-brow, then that's what the market is demanding. Change the culture and you'll change TV.

I'm not so sure about this. The chicken/egg piece of which came first, the culture or the programming is not clear cut to me.

I think they've both spiraled down in small steps over the last 20 years but people watch so much TV that it's certainly had an active influence.

I do agree however on the Nova/Simpsons piece and it's nice that more channels have given us choices. I guess the frustrating thing for me is that the majority of people are choosing things that I don't choose which make me feel marginalized. No problem, turn it off, pop in a DVD or read a book or check feeds but TV does have the potential to be more.

I was at a dinner last night where someone, in her late 20s called 20/20 a news show. Hmmmm, not quite sure about that.

Nicholas12 24 200511:12AM

Huh? Come on, my pet peeve is TV bashers.

"There is no way that reducing things to sound bites makes them more cognitively challening and TV news and entertainment programming seems to have taken the complexity and nuance out of information"

On the contrary, there are two coins to the side of knowledge: breadth and depth. To often people compare education and being informed with the depth of one's knowledge, but isn't it fair to say that not everyone needs a deep understanding of every subject or topic. We don't need every expert to be experts in all fields.That's why specialist exist. Rather a quick battery of shallow information is an excellent tool to choose which areas you would like to focus on for further understandnig.

To go even farther though, TV also offers opportunities for more in depth knowledge. From interviews, to debate panels, and even documentaries, there are plenty of programs that delve into a topic for 10 minutes, 20 minutes or even close to an hour. Maybe it's not as in depth as a tome on the subject, but for many current events and other subject matter there are no such books written yet. Furthermore, the need for that level of expertise may not exist.

Besides, cognative ability and actual knowledge are two different things together. It may take a great deal of cognative power to solve a large algerbraic equation or a complex puzzle, but do you really learn anything from it? Unless it was a new type of problem, it's doubtful.

"an increasingly rapid rate does not necessarily translate into viewers learning more, simply because the content to which they are being fed is often no more than typical popculture tripe."

But you're assuming there isn't anything to learn from pop-culture. It could be as simple as having an interesting conversation piece, but more likely there is more to it than that. Isn't the history just the study of "pop culture" that is no longer relevant?

It's easy to dismiss television content as "low-brow" but wouldn't Shakespeare have also been considered low-bro for his time. The most notable works of literature for our time will probably come from pop culture. Isn't it likely that in the future a work like Star Wars would be studied over other "high-brow" pieces. Wouldn't a basic understanding of Star Wars be necessary to understand half of what is happening in our culture right now.

jerry jeff26 24 200511:26AM

Johnson writes this: "The pleasure in these [reality] shows comes not from watching other people being humiliated on national television;it comes from depositing other people in a complex, high-pressure environment where no established strategies exist and watching them find their bearings."

I'd say it is both and depending on what kind of person you are its more one or the other. A lot of people like to watch other people do stupid things and get screwed over. To pretend humiliation and degradation -whether a woman in a bikini eating snails with sheep crap on her for 10 grand or Abu Ghraib- aren't a major factor of our culture right now is pretty silly.

The other problem here is this strange science-o-fying of culture that assumes that as long as narrative structures are more complex that means culture is "improving" and making people smarter, regardless of issues of character, aesthetics and morality. (Is this guy an agent for scientology?) Anything to prove a pop culture theory?

Maybe an armchair sociologist should write a book about Gladwell, Johnson and David Brooks with a surprising premise. How about - "these books actually make you ignorant!" Here we go: Learning about the world via blogs forces us to digest chaos, whereas these quaint books with an easy-to-digest university thesis and supporting cherry-picked anecdotes present an early-20th century view of the world that never existed then and certainly not today.

Piers Morgan52 24 200511:52AM

I don't think that Johnson's point is "watching TV makes you smarter." I think he argues that we are expecting more and more from TV. Its novelty as a medium has worn off and producers are being forced to make more and more interesting shows.

I totally agree with this. I have never really been a fan of TV, and while I don't want to sound like one of those "I'm too smart for TV, I'd rather read Proust" wankers, I haven't been able to watch an entire show in months.

Except, that is, for Lost. I absolutely love it, I download episodes via bittorrent as soon as I can (I'm in Australia, not only are we weeks behind, but we also don't have TiVo).

I sincerely think that Lost and shows like it are the first generation of TV shows that cater to a more intelligent audience, and they come from a long line of shows that have become more and more complex. My mother and sister, however, still only want to watch a show we have here called "Dancing With The Stars," where C-grade celebrities compete in ballroom dancing. TV is not, and will never be, an entirely high-brow medium. But at least we now have some choice.

Richard41 24 200512:41PM

When Dan Rather retired (or was retired) recently there was talk of an earlier time in TV news when it wasn't connected to money and that time did exist.

CBS had a producer, Fred Friendly, who along with Murrow, Cronkite, and many others, some of whom are still working (mostly for NPR and PBS) tried to steer TV news away from the direction that it has ultimately gone in (linked to money and raitings) and in those days, broadcast news (there was no cable) had a very different flavor.

Now every show has to carry its weight (sell soap) and because of that, news is produced differently than it was when the three major networks' news divisions were kept apart from coprporate bottom lines and were thought of as showpieces.

Take a snapshot of those days and another one of the same networks now and fold in Fox news and even the NewsHour (to be fair) and the line, to me anyway, is spiraling down.

Why it has devolved as it has (assuming one thinks it has) is a fascinating question and one that I'm not finding a good answer for in the Johnson article.

Okay, here I go:

If watching TV makes you smarter and if getting less in depth but a wider spread of information is a good thing, and if more people are watching TV now than ever before, how did we elect George W. Bush?

Steven Johnson37 24 2005 1:37PM

Hey folks, nice to see the debate starting...

Most of this revolves around how you complete the sentence: "Watching TV Makes You Smarter... Than What?" If you read the article (and of course even more so the book) you'll see that the proper end to that sentence is: "Watching TV makes you smarter than it would have thirty years ago." There are plenty of things out there that will make you smarter than watching TV will -- the point is that there is a long-term trend in television towards more nuance and complexity, and for some reason, no one ever mentions this trend. It's always assumed that everything is horribly dumbed-down compared to the gems of yesteryear.

(And I'm talking about entertainment here, not news, though I think a case could be made for news as well -- I'd rather have FOX, CNN, MSNBC than the nightly Word Of God from Cronkite.)

In the book, you'll see that I believe that the real engine driving the intelligence of the popular culture lies in the interactive forms: games, blogs, email, hypertext, etc. Television has had to evolve alongside those forms just to keep its audience interested (as Jason suggests in his summary.)

I would LOVE to see someone do a takedown of me, Brooks, and Gladwell, particularly if it means I get to sell as many copies as those guys. But maybe read the book first and see if you feel the same way...

Gotta run -- I've got a TiVo'd episode of Desperate Housewives to catch...

Nicholas28 24 2005 3:28PM

"If watching TV makes you smarter and if getting less in depth but a wider spread of information is a good thing, and if more people are watching TV now than ever before, how did we elect George W. Bush?"

Good point, but I'll take you up on it. Getting information in a wider spread is only good in that it allows you to choose which information you wish to understand more in depth. Persumably, you will go to another source for more in depth understanding. Perhaps, you get a bachelor's in computer science because you enjoyed watching Tech TV (breadth leads to depth).

As for your second point, why or how did we elect George W. Bush. Easy, I'd blame it on the Baby Boom generation. My mother voted for Bush despite my more informed suggestions to do otherwise. If it had been up to the TV/video-game/Internet/information addicted GenX, we'd would sending the country in the right direction. ;)

Richard13 24 2005 4:13PM

Nicholas,

Gen X and whatever the youngest demographic name voting now is voted less than boomers and seniors. The weakest turnout in the last election was younger voters who presumably are smart and deep.

I'm a boomer, my wife is a boomer. We voted for Gore then Kerry. I think boomers split but at least we voted!

"I'd rather have FOX, CNN, MSNBC than the nightly Word Of God from Cronkite."

Wow. Well, on this I'll have to respectfully disagree. It's not what Cronkite/Murrow/Friendly and their news org did, it's what they were trying to do: to be as objective as they could be. I guess this is one more area where I feel marginalized: I find FOX, CNN, and MSNBC to be poor excuses for news organizations. Fox is so bad that to include them in that sentence is simply amazing to me. I'm blown away that anyone who can actually read and write would admit publicly to taking fox news seriously. Ever seen the video Outfoxed?

barlow20 24 2005 4:20PM

I've noticed that smart people get smarter from whatever they are reading / watching. I see this with my three grammar-school-aged sons. Take the first two Loony Tunes Gold Collection DVD sets. Because of those, they now know about explosives, gangsters, elopement, time travel, shrinking, a dozen or so classical songs, the swing era, elevator operators, chauffeurs, gravity, jazz, Humphrey Boggart, dating, flight, etc. It is astounding sometimes what they've learned from Loony Tunes alone. Anyway, I think any kind of media is compatible with learning, but the one danger I see is that even smart television is entertaining, and studying hard in school isn't always that entertaining. Sometimes you have to sit down and memorize a list of English Monarchs and the dates they ruled. And that is where American kids do not excel. I'm studying for my Ph.D. examinations right now and it is so hard to cram these facts in my head when what I really want to do is ponder the timeline of the movie "Primer".

ess05 24 2005 6:05PM

Couple of things that make me echo the "ca ca: comment.

One, watching TV - the act of looking at that kind of light even if you're just watching "The Honey Hole" fishing show while waiting for new tires - has a mildly hypnotic effect. For all I know, being in this state could aid thinking and learning. Either way, if you're going to argue about what happens when people watch TV, then you need to explain how this affect fits into your theory.

Two, spare me from discussions of how dialog is better or worse during this golden age or that golden age. The Jack Benny Show and "I Married Joan" are chock full o rich and nuanced dialog - and the silences required for dramatic and comedic timing. Meanwhile, on today's TeeVee, we have the half-scripted yammering of reality TV toads racking up good ratings. A transcript from "America's Top Tow-Truck Driver" might have more words than an episode of Perry Mason and this would prove what?

And that clap-trap about "medical terminology." According to highly scientific surveys of people who teach in those professions (a ongoing study of mine using a methodology called "happy hour"), 108-percent of what TV show portray as legal, law enforcement, and medical information is dangerously wrong while the other 407-percent is merely just off enough to cause endless trouble for people who work in those professions.

Who hasn't read a news story about "the C.S.I. effect"?

vacapinta32 24 2005 7:32PM

If you read the article (and of course even more so the book) you'll see that the proper end to that sentence is: "Watching TV makes you smarter than it would have thirty years ago." There are plenty of things out there that will make you smarter than watching TV will

This point is made clearly here but not in the article which reads as less of an apology for television than a celebration. I could go into how journalistic texts themselves don't examine the nuances of an issue but instead tend to go for the wildly one-sided case, much like the statement of an eager attorney - but I won't. :)

If it is true that "plenty of things out there that will make you smarter than watching TV will" then my apathetic sense says "why bother?" Wake me up when it catches up.

Clint49 25 2005 3:49AM

Sure, you're all right. There's plenty of that mind-numbing, brainless TV, as well as well executed educational programming. I believe the biggest problem lies in the attitude with which we approach the little (or very large and flat) box.

When was the last time you sat down on the couch, hit the big red button on the remote, and got ready to learn? You may watch National Geographic, Discovery, History, and the like. You may find some programs interesting, thought-provoking. But which ones do you really remember? Which ones are spoken of most frequently around the water cooler the next day?

The truth as I see it is that TV watching, by its very nature, is an activity based on inactivity. When you watch TV, all you usually want to do is shut down for a while, relax, and have a cold one at the end of the day. Not engage yourself in a deep learning experience. I know I may be exaggerating a little, but it's just to make that point.

I believe in TV and film as very valid forms of art in our society. But just like everything else, you have to sift through a lot of crap to find some of the real beauty.

Lately, I've rediscovered radio as an art form, and as a tool for education. It's a form of media that requires more attention to be really absorbed, I think.

Some of you might also like to check out this site with some current events that I believe are relevant to the topic.

Adbuster's TV Turn-off Week.

Craniac06 25 200511:06AM

There's nothing wrong with chocolate, but if I can't keep from eating a pound a day, I should probably keep it out of my house.

I'm buying one of those coin-operated tv boxes that Christian Fundies sell to regulate tv watching in my house.

/not ashamed of my lack of willpower

George Carr17 25 2005 4:17PM

I agree with the line of thinking that says the viewer's attitude is critical. If you're just looking to vegetate in front of the tube, you could watch high-brow TV with long story arcs, vivid characters, and objective news reporting without gleaning much information or stretching your cognitive faculties. But, if you approach television as a powerful medium, where people can learn and be persuaded and be convinced and be entertained in a way that doesn't insult their mental faculties, you'll also get what you expect.

Peter Riis30 25 2005 4:30PM

The Sopranos may be complex and nuanced by the standards of TV drama, but it certainly isn't by the standards of, say, nineteenth-century serial novels, which were certainly part of the popular culture of the time.

But if we do accept the premise that the exposure to more complexity makes us smarter, what effect does the exposure to graphic violence have on viewers? I think the case for the existence of a trend towards more graphic violence is at least as strong as that for the trend towards more complexity.

Also, couldn't a case be made that increased complexity increases the intensity of viewer attention in order to make them more receptive to the commercials?

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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