Stupidity Is Contagious
By Neil McKinnon
(Ed. Note: Neil is the author of Tuckahoe Slidebottle (Thistledown Press) which was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Humour Award and the Howard O’Hagen Short Fiction Award)
Lowbrow movies, books and television programs are harming our brains. A recent study at the University of Linz in Austria has shown that performance scores on knowledge tests vary depending on the types of fictional characters that are portrayed in the stories we consume. This occurs because, on some level, we identify with story characters and we tend to incorporate some of their mental traits. If someone in a story is dim-witted and I pay insufficient attention to our differences (assuming there are some) then part of him or her rubs off and the gap between us narrows. It appears that stupidity is not just hereditary, it’s contagious.
During the research, two groups were tested by getting them to read a play in which the protagonist was intellectually feeble. One group was asked to think about the traits exhibited. The other was not. The critical thinking kept contagion from occurring and the first group outperformed the second during subsequent testing. The good news is that, unlike inherited qualities, the mental impairment caused by a lack of critical thinking appears to be temporary.
Sometimes research tends to prove the obvious. The foregoing findings have been self-evident in some fields for years. Two examples: 1) Advertisers know full-well that promotion works better when we think we’re immune to it and turn off our critical faculties, and 2) the fact that people buy into the mud-slinging that passes for political discourse leads any objective observer to the conclusion that a portion of the electorate is essentially brain-dead most of the time.
It occurred to me that if trait absorption exists in story consumption, advertising and politics then it probably happens in other areas of life as well. To test this hypothesis my research firm, SRI (Spurious Results Inc.) conducted an experiment in which my friend Mort Semalink happily volunteered as a subject. We decided to see if exposing Mort to stories about virile, handsome, charming and self-assured men who were always desired by beautiful women would make noticeable changes to his dating profile.
Mort was ideal for the experiment because as he puts it, “I always been unlucky with them womans of the opposite sex forever. When I get near that kind of womans, she snorts in her nose and heads south—so I ain’t got no ‘sperience. The sperment is good ‘cause maybe I could get my chances bigger with those womans.”
As the reader has no doubt discerned, Mort does not always display his critical thinking ability. Using his previous statement to approximate what could loosely be termed, informed consent, SRI began setting up the experiment.
To forestall future criticism about our methods we decided to do a double blind study. The first part was easy. While not blind in the traditional sense, most people consider Mort visually impaired as he has trouble seeing points-of-view other than his own. To make the study truly double blind it was necessary that the first female to encounter Mort, post-story exposure, have eyesight so dim that she not be able to see his facial features and would thus be oblivious to the four inch hairs protruding from his nostrils, equidistant from the lone eyebrow above and the solitary discoloured tooth below.
Once the protocols were established, SRI proceeded with the experiment. We developed a baseline desirability index (DI) made up by assigning numerical values to various attraction factors such as looks, sense of humour, conversational ability, financial viability and social status. The index ranged from zero to 100 where zero indicated a complete lack of desirability and a DI of 100 signified that we were dealing with a perfect hunk. Our ideal candidate would, of course, start with a relatively low index factor. After adding up the numbers, we discovered that Mort’s DI was minus thirty-seven.
During a four-hour period each day for an entire week, we had Mort watch films and read stories about various Lotharios including Don Juan, Casanova and Charlie Sheen. We thought that it would be necessary to disable Mort’s critical thinking during this part of the experiment. However, we discovered that turning off Mort’s critical thinking was similar to turning off cruise control in a Model T.
Meanwhile, the search continued for a visually impaired woman. We found Geraldine Pagenfroth in the parking lot at Costco. She was walking up and down the rows feeling the hood ornament of each car. Ignoring suspicions of a weird fetish, we approached and asked what she was doing.
“I’ve lost my car,” she said. “Have you seen it? It’s an old Ford and the hood ornament feels exactly like a man’s … well you know.”
“What colour is it? We’ll help you find it.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I lost my glasses before I bought the car and I can’t afford new ones. My eyesight isn’t good enough to tell. Hell, without glasses, I can barely keep between the white lines on the freeway.”
Bingo! We had our introducee. While she wasn’t beautiful in the classic sense, she was vertical, probably warm and had a few bumps relatively near where they should be. I explained that we were from SRI, that we were conducting an experiment and that she might be qualified to participate. She was intrigued and readily agreed to be tested for suitability.
Our battery of tests found her normal except for two characteristics: 1) Her vision proved more limited than we initially thought, and 2) we were pleased to discover that she had an IQ of 152.
We then introduced Geraldine to Mort and sent them to a philharmonic concert followed by a scrumptious late-night candlelit dinner. They returned hours later chattering away and holding hands. We pried them apart and retested both of them.
Mort’s desirability index had improved from minus 37 to minus 36 which is statistically significant at the .07 confidence level two times out of 400. However, we are still unsure whether the improvement was due to the stories Mort had consumed or to the fact that he had cut an inch and a half off of each nose hair. We then discovered that Geraldine’s IQ had dropped 67 points.
Our conclusion: Sometimes rivers do run both ways.