Media Myths, More Common Beliefs

Part II: Everybody knows fiction can have a profound effect on real life.

Posted May 18, 2020

In Part II of II, I continue to look at some common beliefs and explore the data for each.

Will and Grace and Gay Rights (Apocryphal): By now we’re onto a familiar pattern: “Did popular media X cause a change of attitudes related to Y?”  The popular television show Will and Grace was released in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, just as American attitudes toward gay rights were substantially changing.  Even Joe Biden credited the show with changing American attitudes.  Surely there must be some solid social-science evidence documenting the impact of the show?

Nope.  I looked through the database of psychological studies (PsychINFO) and found only 5 that mentioned “Will and Grace” specifically, none of which were empirical articles.  Maybe Will and Grace (which, it should be remembered, garnered many laughs by portraying its main gay characters in stereotyped ways) changed minds, or maybe it just mirrored what was already going on in society.  As a thought exercise, imagine plopping Will and Grace down in the 1950s.  Would it have actually changed minds regarding homosexuality?  I don’t think so.  Lacking clear data, this argument is apocryphal at best. 

13 Reasons Why and Suicide (Debunked): This case is an example of why it’s best to wait a few years for the science to settle out before leaping to a conclusion.  The show 13 Reasons Why was a critical and commercial success but its graphic depiction of a young girl’s suicide got activists and moral crusaders in an uproar.  Even the National Association of School Psychologists got in on the game, warning about potential dangers of the show.  If this sounds like moral panics about heavy metal music from the late 20th century, well that’s because it’s basically the same thing recycled.

Some initial studies suggested that the show might, indeed, be associated with teen suicide.  But a close look at their data revealed the evidence was actually murkier than the press releases suggested.  An updated analysis of the same data found that, with more proper controls for seasonal and yearly patterns in suicide, the show in fact was not related to teen suicide.  In a survey of teens I recently published in a scholarly journal, it turns out the show is actually associated with reduced depression and suicidal ideation if anything. 

Unfortunately, Netflix panicked before all the data were in, self-censoring the suicide scene.  Doing so is an abject lesson in why media producers should never cave in to pressure from moral entrepreneurs: doing so does little to satisfy critics, merely rewards further moral bullying, and loses the producer the ability to function as a defender of free speech. 

Thin Models Cause Anorexia Nervosa (Debunked): This one is probably the trickiest one on the list. First, because a lot of people who are skeptical of other moral panics still believe in this.  And because there’s a whole murky realm of science involving body dissatisfaction, debates about crappy methodology, psychology’s replication crisis, and whatnot.  But here’s the TL/DR version:

First, there are pretty much no studies that actually examine whether thin-ideal media causes clinically diagnosed eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.  That probably makes sense given that eating disorders remain rare, with anorexia nervosa diagnosed in less than 1 percent of women.  Finding adequate samples of eating disordered individuals is difficult. 

Instead, studies of media effects either examine an unpleasant but non-clinical issue body dissatisfaction or eating disorder symptoms usually via a self-report survey (and some of these are mild, like dieting to lose weight).  Effects here are inconsistent at best (despite some scholars dressing up findings as better than they are.)  The best studies using high-quality methods, tend to be least likely to find evidence for effects.  Results from meta-analysis suggest thin-ideal portrayals may be upsetting to women who already have body dissatisfaction but does not appear to be a root cause.  Even the often-cited Fiji study of television effects found more null results than many advocates let on.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop people from making a lot of exaggerated claims, including in some very earnest but misleading documentaries college students are made to watch.  But the most we can say is media might make some women annoyed if they’re already unhappy with their bodies (conversely evidence suggests some other women see their body satisfaction increase when exposed to thin ideals in media).  But there’s no evidence they cause eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.  Allowing for some fair debate over non-clinical body dissatisfaction, I’m putting this in the debunked bin.

Birth of a Nation Revives the KKK (Apocryphal): The 1915 film Birth of a Nation which depicts a South ravaged by black union soldiers where masked KKK members are the heroes is considered a technical marvel of early cinema.  It’s also blatantly racist.  Did the film help revive the KKK’s flagging fortunes in 1915?

Ultimately, it’s hard to say. Once again, there’s no clear empirical evidence one way or another, leaving people to interpret the co-occurrence of events in divergent ways.  Many articles kind of imply a link without definitively attributing a cause. 

It may help to put things in perspective. The year 1915 was an unabashedly racist time and the civil rights of African Americans had been brutally crushed already, particularly in the post-reconstruction south.  There’s no question a nascent KKK that evolved in 1915 hoped to use the film as propaganda and copied some of its tropes.  The KKK later produced their own films and some historians do credit these with promoting the KKK.  Curiously, the film is also credited with galvanizing civil rights movements, though these would not come to fruition until a generation later.    

On the other hand, would the KKK have faded away if only Birth of a Nation hadn’t existed?  I’m skeptical.  The KKK benefited from energized and strategic leadership in 1915, and also tapped into seething racism that already existed.  By the early 1920s, they had an efficient business and recruiting operation that undoubtedly played a major role in their success.  As for the crucial nature of the film, would things have been different had the film not been made? Ultimately, without empirical evidence, we’ll never really know for sure.   

Orcs Promote Racism (Debunked): Dungeons and Dragons has long been the target of moral panics, often from the right, concerned the role-playing game might promote Satanism, suicide, and anything else you can imagine.  The game already self-censored itself once trying (unsuccessfully, a lesson for all who appease the morally outraged) to mollify social conservatives.  Now the script is flipped and the far-left are suggesting that a fictional race of bad guys, orcs (also the bad guys in Lord of the Rings) are racist (in that defining a race of monsters as evil by nature is racist.)

I actually cover this issue in an entirely different essay; I’ll sum it up quickly here.  To point out the obvious: Orcs don’t exist.  Is it possible to be racist toward creatures that are fictional?  Their origin comes from Irish, then English (cultural appropriators!) folklore, which was the influence for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, then Dungeons and Dragons.  There’s no evidence they are based on any human cultural group nor that playing Dungeons and Dragons promotes racism in real life. 

If anything, some on the far-left appear to be projecting their own racist stereotypes onto a fictional monster if they’re somehow detecting actual cultural groups in an evil creature never intended to represent anything but a monster.  Embracing this belief would also ultimately open the door to target many indigenous folklores which include tales of bad guy monster "races."  It's arguably a curious example of far-left ideologies opening a door to "colonize" indigenous folklore in pursuit of a Western moral agenda.  Good evidence both the left and right are happy to call for censorship when it suits them. 

Porn and Sexual Assault (Debunked): Alright, this isn’t exactly fictional media, but still worth considering.  Porn has been a moral agenda from the right for decades.  The Republican National Convention identified pornography as a public health crisis in 2016.  At least sixteen states have followed suit using language apparently drafted by the anti-pornography group National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media; apparently NCSE sounds more important, though the group isn’t a government organization).  This issue is undoubtedly a tough one for skeptical politicians: Who wants to be the state senator "in favor of" porn? 

Pornography has been tied to a fair number of myths or at least debatable claims, such as heavy involvement with sex trafficking or increased erectile dysfunction.  But perhaps the most lasting is the belief that pornography viewing is associated with sexual violence toward women.  There have been dozens of studies on this stretching back to the 1970s.

Frankly, many of the studies just aren’t very good.  When I reviewed them with Dr. Richard Hartley 10 years ago, we found the results were generally inconsistent, but the better-designed studies tended not to find effects.  We’re in the process of updating our review of the evidence now and not much has changed over the last decade.  More crucially though, increased porn availability has been associated with declining sexual assault rates cross-nationally.  That’s not necessarily causal, both outcomes may be related to increased societal liberalization.  But if porn had the pernicious effects some claim, we’d expect to see opposite trends given how ubiquitous (and free) porn has become.

Ultimately, a lot of stories about media effects are like campfire tales of some scary dude with a hook for a hand.  For some, the story’s great but there’s not really clear evidence to back the narrative.  For others, the evidence we have only contradicts the narrative.  But why ruin a good story with facts?  Probably tall tales about fictional media effects will continue to be told.  Hopefully, we can dispel a few with better science.

Part II of II