SGU Episode 16

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SGU Episode 16
12th October 2005
SGU 15 SGU 17
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
GS: Glenn Sparks
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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, October 12th, 2005. This is your host Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Hello everybody.

S: ... Bob Novella, ...

B: Hello everyone.

S: ... and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening folks.

Glenn Sparks Interview (0:24)[edit]

S: This week we have a special guest, Glenn Sparks. Glenn, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

GS: Hi. Pleasure to be here.

S: Glenn Sparks is a Professor of Communication at Purdue University, who has written extensively about the effects of media, specifically television viewing on beliefs and behavior, including belief in the paranormal, which is why he is on our show this week. He is the author of Media Effects Research, A Basic Overview, which is an undergraduate text.

Media and Belief in the Paranormal (0:50)[edit]

Glenn, we were looking over a lot of the articles that you've written, some of which we've read in the past. Let's start with one that's obviously close to what we deal with: Investigating the Relationship Between Exposure to Television Programs That Depict Paranormal Phenomena and Belief In The Paranormal. Why don't you tell us a little bit about that.

GS: Yes, this was actually, I believe, the second major survey that I had done on this topic, and what I was trying to do here was really just see whether or not we could document a relationship between people's media exposure, particularly exposure to paranormal programming, and what they believed in the paranormal. Of course, if you find a relationship like this, it's difficult if not impossible from a survey to conclude that the programming leads people to adopt the beliefs.

S: Right.

GS: It could be the other way around.

S: Yeah. People who believe in the paranormal watch shows about it.

GS: That's right.

S: Right.

GS: But I was interested in seeing whether in the survey context we could at least document that there was a relationship between these two things.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And then, I've explored that relationship in the laboratory in an experimental setting to try to gather more understanding about the possible causal process that might be taking place there. So this was a random sample survey of the Lafayette area here in Indiana. We had just over a hundred respondents, and we asked them questions about their belief in a variety of different paranormal phenomena, as well as questions about their typical viewing habits, ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... programs that they watched on television.

S: Did you ask them about beliefs in other things that are not paranormal, just as a control kind of question?

GS: In this particular study I think we did ask them, yes, we asked them about their religious beliefs as well. We asked them some of their basic habits when it came to religious practices like attending a religious service weekly and that sort of thing.

S: What was the bottom line of your survey? There was a correlation?

GS: That's right. We did find, as I have found before, that there is a relationship between people's media exposure, particularly in this case to paranormal programming, and what they believe about the paranormal. In this case, the relationship was particularly evident for people who reported that they had had prior direct experience with the paranormal.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: There's a hypothesis in media effects known as the resonance hypothesis.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And the argument goes that if a person has direct experience with something, and then they also get reinforced with that same message or that same experience through their exposure to the media, it's kind of like having a double dose of the same message.

S: Right.

GS: And so the idea is that they might be particularly cultivated into that belief system. I think in this study we found evidence for that kind of effect. It's called the resonance effect.

S: Now how would you control for just the idea that well if they had prior personal experience with the paranormal, that could indicate a prior belief in the paranormal, and wouldn't that tend to support the other hypothesis that the belief is causing the viewership, not the other way around. Right? How did you control for that?

GS: Yeah. You really can't rule out that possible line of inquiry in a survey like this. You can't really, unless you have information about the time-order, and unless you have tried to control for all kinds of other variables.

S: Yeah.

GS: You really can't rule that out.

S: So, where do you go from here on that kind of survey? You can't infer cause and effect from correlation, but you can try to look for multiple different questions ...

GS: That's right.

S: ... to see if they all triangulate. That's right.

S: Where do you go?

GS: The basic move that I make here is that I move the research into the laboratory ...

S: Yeah.

GS: ... where I can gain a rather tight control over exposure to media messages and then the beliefs that people have. So I've done a series of laboratory experiments where I manipulate the nature of the message that a person sees.

S: Right.

GS: In this case I might just vary one aspect of a television program. In some cases it's nothing more than just varying the tag at the beginning of the show.

S: Right.

GS: In other cases I have manipulated, tried to manipulate whether or not the particular belief or the particular phenomenon that's being depicted is endorsed by a scientific source.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Or whether it's debunked or criticized. I try to manipulate that feature. And then I try to hide or to mask the true purpose of the studies. Subjects in these experiments are pretty savvy.

S: Yeah.

GS: I try to disguise what it is that I'm studying.

S: Are they mainly students, mainly university students?

GS: Yeah, that's right. So far it's been mainly students at the university. What I can do is I can pretty successfully disguise what we are studying by telling them to pay particular attention to TV commercials, and then in the postviewing session I can ask them all kinds of questions about their memory for TV commercials.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And they think that's what the study's about.

S: Right.

GS: And then I can also slip in other measures, and when we ask them after the study what they think it was about, we find that that kind of procedure is usually successful. That's the kind of strategy I take.

S: Great. So I remember you published some of these results or summarized them in Skeptical Inquirer a little while ago.

GS: That's right.

S: I remember reading that article. I think what I was most fascinated by was the fact that almost any variable that you manipulated actually led to increased belief in the paranormal. Specifically, if the scientist endorsed the content, belief went up, and if the scientist expressed skepticism, belief also went up, as if any involvement of the scientist lent a certain credibility to the whole endeavor, even if the scientist was being skeptical. Is that basically right?

GS: Yes, that's right. I did find that in one of the studies where I looked at exactly that, and that was what the study showed.

S: Which was of course disheartening for us as skeptics, because it basically says whenever we try to get involved in these paranormal programs to try to interject some scientific skepticism, we're actually increasing belief in the paranormal by lending credibility to the whole endeavor.

B: I think part of the reason might be just by having a scientist there, you're making the phenomenon credible by his mere presence. It gives some sort of cachet to it that it's like ...

S: Right.

B: ... maybe this really is a phenomenon. Look, we got a scientist talking about it. Regardless of what he's saying, which is kind of disappointing, but ...

S: And also lends credibility to the attitude of the majority of mainstream scientists, which is you're better off just ignoring this, because if we even pay any attention to it, it gives it a credibility it doesn't deserve.

GS: Yes, I think that to some extent that that is true, and we really need to investigate that effect ...

S: Right.

GS: ... empirically more than we have. I think that that is particularly a risk right now. In the present environment you have a lot of shows that I would say they sort of tip their hat to the skeptical position.

S: Right.

GS: But it's really not a very strong skeptical voice.

S: Right. We call it token skepticism.

GS: Yeah. Token skepticism.

S: We've basically learned our lesson not to be the token skeptic because it doesn't serve our purpose, and your research, your data reinforces that.

GS: Yeah.

S: And we have to really have some kind of reassurance or control over the whole editorial content of the show. The show's got to be scientific and skeptical, not just a talking head saying "this is crap," somewhere in the middle of the show for two seconds.

GS: That's right. That's right.

S: Just to finish this one point, I think the other lesson that we learned is not to pay attention to paranormal claims or paranormal topics which are essentially wallowing in their own obscurity or anonymity. Because we run the risk of elevating it to a stature it doesn't deserve. But I do think there are some paranormal topics that already have so much widespread belief or exposure that we really can't ignore them.

GS: Yes, I would agree with that. I would agree with that. I think if you're talking about things like psychic detectives and UFO alien abductions, and those sorts of topics.

S: Right.

GS: Talking to the dead.

S: Yeah, we're not going to give John Edwards any more exposure than he already has. But at least if there's a skeptical position out there for people to find who are looking for it, that serves a purpose.

GS: Right.

The Effect of Dramatic Recreations (9:50)[edit]

S: So tell us about some of the other variables that you thought were most interesting. One thing that I remember also was about the recreations, dramatic recreations. Actually, if I recall, that had the most dramatic effect on increasing belief. This is something that always ticks me off when I watch these UFO shows. You have a scientist correctly and reasonably explaining that while this particular eye-witness was describing the planet Venus, and then the producer of the show adds a dramatic animation over this guy's voice-over showing a flying saucer buzzing the police cars. So it makes the scientist look like a total idiot. He's innocently and correctly recounting what happened, and then the producer in the editing room voicing him over this dramatic recreation. You found in your research that just the mere presence of dramatic recreations had the most profound effect on belief. Is that right?

GS: Yes. I did an experiment with Unsolved Mysteries.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Of course they recreated UFOs and UFO encounters in a very vivid way. In general, those recreations do have an impact. Interestingly, in that study, though, we found that individual difference variable made a difference.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: That is people are different in their ability or tendency to create vivid images themselves.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: In that particular study, when we purged the original episode of all of those recreated images, we found that people who were very good at imaging, very high vivid imagers, tended to make up their own images.

S: Yeah.

GS: And ended up believing in UFOs or expressing pro-UFO beliefs more than people who were the low-imagers.

S: So they created their own dramatic recreations in their mind.

GS: That's right. That's right.

S: Now is there any relationship between this and what Bob Baker and Joe Nickell have been describing as the "fantasy-prone personality"? Is that the same thing as a "vivid imager"?

GS: Yeah. That has not been studied to my knowledge explicitly, but I think that given what we know about that concept there could definitely be a connection there. This vivid imaging ability, I believe there is some literature which shows that people who are high in this also tend to be good at generating their own fantasies and that sort of thing. Yes.

S: Right. That's interesting. Being fantasy-prone also correlates highly with belief in the paranormal, and your research might dovetail nicely with that basically saying that if you're exposing fantasy-prone people to paranormal programming, that further drives their belief.

GS: Yes. I think — yes.

S: Basically what we have is the subculture of very, very high degree of belief in the paranormal.

GS: Right.

Television-Watching Culture (13:10)[edit]

S: Do you think this also says anything about our TV watching culture? Are we programmed to respond to images on television in a positive way or to accept perhaps uncritically the images that are being presented to us? Do you thing this is part of our TV culture, or is this basic human psychology?

GS: I think it has to do with television specifically as a medium.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Since the 1960's, TV has in every major survey on the topic, it's been endorsed as the most believable, the most credible of all the mass media.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Because I think it's of course obviously it's an important source of news, and it has to be credible if we are going to believe the news. And I think that people generalize that over the medium. They get their trustworthy news from the medium, and so they just generalize across the medium in general. Yes, I think we are as a culture conditioned to accept ...

S: Right.

GS: ... what we see on television as the truth.

S: And that brings up the topic of docu-dramas, which are basically drama shows masquerading as documentaries, and the very name of the genre sort of implies that. I don't think I've ever seen a docu-drama that I thought did a good service to science or the reasonable or scientific position. They tend to be shows which are pedaling mysteries and the paranormal. Basically, I think what has evolved out of exactly what you're saying, being conditioned to respond to something being told to us in an authoritative, news type of voice or format on television, we accept it unless we have a specific reason not to, we accept it on authority. You just take any topic you want, any fantastical or dramatic topic you want, repackage it as a news story, and there you have your docu-drama.

GS: Yeah. Exactly. I mean it's really just playing with the line, the clear line that we would like to be in the public's mind ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... between reality and fantasy, or reality and fiction. It's taking fictional themes and essentially saying "No, these are real!"

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And giving that sort of layer of credibility to it ...

S: Yeah.

GS: ... in a way that encourages people not to think about it and scrutinize it critically.

S: Right. And I think what your research and what our sense of this is the format appears to be more important than the content ...

GS: That's right.

S: ... in terms of generating belief.

GS: That's right. We have apparently certain scripts that are primed or invoked when we watch television, and when we see the features of a credible newscast, it really in a sense shuts down critical thinking about the content. Well, OK. I see the familiar features of the newscast, and so I'm going to process this as news.

Survey Results (16:18)[edit]

E: Glenn, the results from the study that you conducted, were you surprised by them? Did you have any initial thoughts going into it as far as what you thought might occur, and were you surprised with the results?

GS: I have to say that initially I actually was very surprised by a couple of the features of the research findings, and the first one really that just flabbergasted me was to find out, when I started doing surveys of students here at Purdue, the percentages of students who endorsed belief in paranormal phenomena. I just was not prepared for that. I actually got into this research you might say years ago when I was doing my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, there was a history of science professor there, probably retired now, but he came up to me one day and he said, "you know you study media effects, you've got to give some attention to paranormal programming in the media", because he really thought that this was a significant cause of paranormal beliefs, and I kind of filed it away and I didn't really think much of it. I thought "Well, gee, I don't know about that." Then, in the late eighties when we started seeing these shows explode, really, in prime time, I kind of resurrected the idea, but I really didn't expect to find, certainly didn't expect to find Purdue students endorsing these beliefs widely as they did. And when I say that I'm talking about thirty-five, forty percent of the students surveyed.

S: Back when you were naive. Thought that education ...

GS: I really wasn't prepared for that. And I have to say too that I don't think I was really prepared to find the consistency that I have found in the experimental data ...

S: Right.

GS: ... in terms of short exposures to programs having the kinds of effects that they have in terms of shifting peoples beliefs, causing them to be more willing to endorse belief in these things.

S: Right.

GS: I think that in general as a result of being involved in this research I have become much more concerned about our educational responsibility to teach critical thinking skills ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... and our failure, actually, at doing a good job of that. I think that's one reason why belief in these sorts of things is so widespread, and so I have developed — in the process actually of developing a course on critical thinking about mass media messages that ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... I will teach here at Purdue in the coming years. I was naive. I guess that's the way to put it. I was naive about this.

S: Well we all started off there, but what's interesting what I found counter-intuitive, but's been shown multiple times is that there's actually a positive correlation between the degree of education and belief in the paranormal. I think the reason for that, at least especially for American education, is that we're very good at teaching students to be open-minded, to think about new and fantastical ideas, and we certainly do not shy away from showing the uncertainty of knowledge and not to trust authority figures. Those are all good things, but unless you couple that, as you say, with hard-core tools for logic and skeptical thinking, critical thinking, it leads to — more education actually leads to more belief in silly things like the paranormal.

GS: Yeah, I actually found in this one survey that we started off talking about, I actually found that education did have a negative association with belief in the paranormal, but it was not a very strong ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... negative association. When I say negative I mean higher education, lower belief.

S: Right.

GS: But that included all the way up through graduate degrees, post-graduate work and so forth.

S: I was going to say that I think that that holds true through undergraduate training, ...

GS: Yes.

S: ... and you really have to get into the really post-graduate level before ...

GS: That's right.

S: ... basically by working scientist level ...

GS: That's right.

S: ... before the belief starts to fall off. And basically, what other surveys have shown, is that pretty much this same percentage of the population that is reasonably scientifically literate, is just about the same percentage of the population that work in the sciences. So outside of working scientists and associated professions, the rest of America are basically scientifically illiterate.

GS: I think that's right, and I think I have some data that indicates essentially if you work within that group and rule out the practicing scientists, the post-graduate folks.

S: Right.

GS: If you rule those people out, if you know the level of education that somebody has, it really doesn't tell you anything at all about the likelihood that they're going to endorse paranormal beliefs or not.

E: That's certainly true in my own case. Whereas I didn't even realize there was a skeptical movement or have an appreciation for science and the scientific method until I was about twenty-five years old, a few years removed from my undergraduate work in college. I believed in everything right up through then. Only once I left the academic environment really did I discover the world of skepticism. I totally understand that this is the case, and probably not just Purdue students. I'll bet you that that's pretty much in line with universities all over the country.

GS: I'm sure that's right.

Post-Modernism (22:00)[edit]

S: Unfortunately, one of the beliefs that has been very popular within universities culture is post-modernism. This is not just ignorance of science, this is not necessarily just a friendliness toward paranormal beliefs. Post-modernism is really sort of an intellectual, philosophical belief that science basically is bunk, that science is just another human narrative with no special relationship to the truth any more than art or history or any cultural belief system. Post-modernist beliefs are rampant through American universities and European universities. There's a lot of factors, not just the absence of critical thinking skills, there's actually cultural, historical factors that are working against us.

GS: Yeah, I certainly agree with that. In fact, that theme that you just mentioned there, post-modernism, has been a major theme in almost every department of communication ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... that of major departments in the country. And certainly has been a major theme in my own department.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: It's really been a battle-ground you might say.

S: You find yourself personally embattled with post-modernist philosophy in your university?

GS: Historically, we have been here, yes. I'm happy to say that in the last five years the scientific side has really emerged.

S: Right.

GS: That has not been the case at other departments at other universities.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: It really is just a function of the particular people who come and go.

S: Right. Right. Right.

GS: We've been fortunate in my own department.

E: It waxes and wanes depending?

GS: That's right. I think that's right.

S: I think that there are vast disciplines and generations of people within the arts especially and humanities who really latched onto this idea. It's a bit self-serving, because it basically says that whatever they're doing within the humanities is just as valid as anything that scientists are doing. The scientists don't have anything on them.

GS: Right.

S: Unfortunately, I think it comes down to that to some degree just a little bit of professional jealousy, and why they've really endorsed it. Interestingly, within hard-core philosophy of science, it really has come and gone already. This is sort really a philosophy of the twentieth century, and the people who, or the discipline that really generated this idea, have already gone past it and given it up, but it hasn't really trickled down to the rest of academia, and certainly not to popular culture. The place that I find it most dishearteningly entrenched is in the education culture in this country. The people who are giving out education degrees — totally infiltrated with post-modernism, and it's really disheartening. I don't know if you've personally encountered that at all.

GS: Yeah, I'm not surprised by that. I don't have a lot of close contact with the education folks, but I'm not surprised at that. I see this in my classes when I confront students with really just basic logic and ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... thinking about claims and the validity of claims. It's just startling to hear what they think and what they've been taught in other classrooms about the nature of science and the validity of scientific claims ...

S: Right.

GS: ... as opposed to other sorts of claims. It really is like you say. I think it's not left us yet. It's still ...

S: No, you think about it. What are all of the various components of our society which affect what our citizens know and believe? It's primary education, university education, and increasingly, the media. What we're basically saying is that post-modernists and philosophies which are amenable to belief in the paranormal pretty much hold sway throughout the education system. There isn't a complete lack or inadequacy of teaching of science and critical thinking in the education system, and in fact most people learn and acquire most of their beliefs through mass media, and there, there's really almost no skepticism.

GS: I'd have to agree with that.

S: So where does that leave us? That's why I think that what you're doing is so important, because the mass media, I think, is actually playing an increasing role as a source of knowledge and beliefs in our society. I think there's definitely room to teach the public how to be critical consumers of mass media.

GS: That's certainly one of the things I'm trying to do.

S: Right.

Trends in Television (26:46)[edit]

GS: One of the surprising things about the pop culture media stuff is that it's been difficult to predict. I thought I few years ago that maybe we were starting to get away from this.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And now you come upon the current TV seasons, and you realize, man, this stuff is just back with a vengenance.

S: Right.

GS: And it never really went away, but it just seems like it's more popular right now than it ever has been.

S: Yeah. I mean I think we discussed this briefly on last week's show. Basically, I think what happened was you had a couple of programs like "Lost" that were just very well written. They were just good entertaining shows. It has nothing to do with the fact that they are paranormal. The unimaginative TV executives decided to emulate this show, but rather than emulating its quality, they emulated its paranormal theme.

GS: Right.

S: So now we have a host of paranormal shows, but I don't think they're going to last very long. If you back just one year or two years, the most popular show is Crime Scene Investigations, so of course there were twenty crime scene investigative shows.

GS: The industry knows how to copy.

S: Right. Right. I don't know that necessarily this is a paranormal phenomenon so much as just a TV executive copycat phenomenon.

GS: I think that's right. I think that is the right take on it. You can really get speculative about why this is happening, and I really think the business practice is the best explanation for why we're seeing this stuff.

S: Right. But it does bring up an interesting topic. At times, skeptics have been criticized by being essentially sticks-in-the-mud, because we have been critical of the way the paranormal is depicted within fiction. You've been talking about, again, documentaries and shows which pretend to be informational, but what about the presentation of the paranormal in fiction? As we said last week, the four of us actually like science fiction and fantasy. We have no problem with it.

GS: Right.

S: But some skeptics have argued that the movies and television shows of our culture — this is really the mythology of our society. This is the mythology of our culture, and it shouldn't be taken lightly. It shouldn't be dismissed because it is just a movie or just TV. And if the mythology is constantly celebrating credible or credulous belief in the paranormal, and the only role model of scientist is essentially the "mad scientist," Frankenstein kind of model, that we're basically creating a reverence in our society for belief in the paranormal, and demonizing the scientists. Do you deal at all with that? with fiction or just the role of movies or fiction television programs on belief?

GS: Yeah, I actually have done one experiment with a fictional program. Maybe you'll remember it. It used to run on the USA network. It was called "Beyond Reality."

S: Hm, hm.

GS: There were half-hour episodes, and think Shari Belafonte used to star in it. I did an experiment with one of their episodes on astral projection. Based on that study, I guess I have some sympathy for the concern about these fictional programs. The study showed that exposure to that episode did make it easier for people to endorse their own personal beliefs in astral projection.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: I think that if you think about the cognitive processes as we understand it as people are processing this kind of media it kind of makes sense. There's the notion of the availability heuristic. As people spend time with these programs, and then they are asked to make a judgment about whether something is credible, they tend to draw upon the thing that is easiest to come to mind. Whether or not that is a fictional entertainment experience or whether it's something that is harder than that, if they've been spending time with that kind of idea, they don't really tend to make a clear distinction.

S: Right.

GS: They use that as a guideline in terms of coming to a belief about the possibility that this might actually exist. I think we're not necessarily saying here that people watch these programs and they end up coming away true believers. It just makes the belief more plausible.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: So the people are willing to express the possibility: "Oh, yeah, that might happen." You know. I kind of have been exposed to that idea, and that might happen. And I think that's really where these fictional programs exert their effect.

S: Right. There's also I think a pretty well-documented literature looking at the role of fiction in paranormal beliefs in that for example the effect of science-fiction movies about aliens.

GS: Yes

S: And how what gets portrayed in these science fiction movies gets incorporated into the UFO mythology.

GS: That's right.

S: The two sort of feed off of each other.

GS: Yeah. No question about it. Down to the images that we carry in our heads about what aliens look like.

S: Right. And what flying saucers are supposed to look like.

GS: Yes. Right.

S: And what the aliens are doing here, et cetera.

GS: Yup.

S: So, you're sort of endorsing ... the bottom line of what I'm saying here is that it's legitimate to be concerned about fiction and its impact on our culture, for no other reason if you're sparking the imagination of the youth to believe in these things, that's likely to have a profound impact on their life, as opposed to say in the immediate post-Sputnik era when America's youth were encouraged to imagine themselves as astronauts and scientists and et cetera, and that sparked real scientific revolution in this country, which some people argue led to the tech boom of the nineties, the internet, all the things that really took off twenty, thirty years later.

GS: Yes. Yes.

S: So now we're going to have a paranormal boom twenty years from now, I guess? Because we're in the middle of that now.

The CSI Effect (33:20)[edit]

GS: We can see the same kind of effect in fact I think one of the major news magazines ran a story on it. You know the CSI effect?

S: Hm, hm.

GS: What that has done to jury members who come in to trials expecting as a result of their familiarity with that program, expecting that every jury trial is going to involve evidence of the sort ...

S: Right.

GS: ... that convicts people on CSI.

S: Right.

GS: And it's becoming an increasing problem in our jury system right now, because typically trials don't contain that kind of evidence.

S: Right.

GS: And yet people are bringing their expectations based on a fictional program that represents things that could possibly happen, and they just make that transfer all too easily.

P: That's very interesting. Glenn, have you looked at or what is your take on the glut of reality TV programming that we see today?

GS: I'm sorry.

P: You know, the reality television: Survivor and all that kind of stuff. There's so much of it nowadays.

GS: Yeah. Again, I kind of look at that as really almost an accident of the practices in the industry. I go back to the writer's strike in the late 1980's when the television industry was really scrambling for programming that they could put on when they lost the writers, and they kind of turned to this reality genre. I think that's when a lot of the paranormal programming started, too, because they just kind of accidentally stumbled on this theme. They found that they could put people on TV who said they'd seen a UFO, and they got ratings with it. It was cheap to produce.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And it just kind of evolved after that. I think reality television really is sort of an outgrowth of that as well. It's much cheaper to produce. They found that because it has competition involved in it, and people tend to become involved with the characters, and they have to stay around to see what happens to the people they like and don't like, that the genre works. They've had to do some innovations to keep people interested in the formulas. I think that it's going to be around for awhile in one form or another. People predicted that it was going to die out, but I think the creativity in the industry to keep this basic genre coming under different scenarios is pretty potent. I don't underestimate the creativity of the TV executives.

Violence in the Media (36:00)[edit]

S: So, Glenn, I want to change gears a little bit and get away from the paranormal, but talk about an issue which keeps cropping up over and over again. It's one of these issues where you get the feeling that political interests are manipulating the science to fit their needs. So maybe you can clear this up for us once and for all. The issue is violence in the media. The question that keeps cropping up is "Does depictions of violence in the media make people violent?" What do you think?

GS: Well, there's a lot you have to say in order to answer that question in the appropriate scientific way.

S: Go for it.

GS: I guess what I would say is: first of all, yes, I am probably part of the consensus of the scientific community when I would say that there's no question that the experiments that have been done on this topic over the years, and we have many of them now, tend to converge and support the notion that viewing media violence is associated with a greater likelihood to act aggressively. Now that's a very general ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... kind of statement. The way you have to qualify that statement is by saying first of all the statistical effect size is very small. It's a modest statistical effect.

S: Hm, hm. True, but insignificant is what you would say.

GS: Well, I wouldn't say it's insignificant, but ...

S: But small.

GS: ... it's small. An interesting aspect of that is that a small statistical effect can sometimes be socially important.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: If only two people out of 500,000 people who view an act of media violence decide to go out an imitate it, you could still end up with arguably you might say a socially important effect.

S: Right.

GS: If that act of violence is murder.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: But it's still a small effect. That I think has to be emphasized. The other thing that we're finding here is that increasingly I think we're qualifying this effect by saying that there are certain kinds of individuals that are much more likely to be affected by these sorts of programs than others. I think the best research right now is going on in a medical context, which is showing that children, for example, who already have some psychological disturbance and if you look at adults that may already be high on the hostility subscale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. So people who already have sort of a predisposition to aggression, they maybe have a family background or a social pathology ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... which predisposes them to aggression. Maybe they even have a chemical predisposition to aggression. Those are the folks that are most at risk for the effects of media violence. In a case of a typical child who has a healthy family background and has a healthy peer group and so forth, we're not finding that the risk is tremendously great, you might say.

S: So just a couple of clarifying questions. What you're saying is that there's a modest or small effect, not that there's a small effect across the board, but there's an effect on a small number of subjects, and the majority of people have no effect from watching violent programs. Is that a fair way to summarize that?

GS: I don't know if I would go that far to say that the majority of people have no effect, but I would say that the strongest effects that we find increasingly now we're beginning to understand are more likely to be found among those people who already had this predisposition.

S: But is that enough to explain the entire statistical effect, or is it ...

GS: I think in many studies it may be, yes.

S: OK.

GS: In many studies it may be.

S: The other clarifying question is: are you also saying that watching violent programming isn't making these people violent. It's not giving them a violent personality. It is simply triggering violent behavior in a pre-existing violent personality. Is that fair?

GS: Yeah, that's right. A trigger is a very good term to use, I think. A lot of the theories actually that try to explain this phenomenon use a concept that's very much like that. That you have to have a person first of all — to observe aggression you have to have a person who has some preexisting frustration or anger.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And so if you don't have that, if a perfectly docile person watches media violence, it's not likely that they're going to be affected by that ...

S: Right.

GS: ... in terms of going out and performing aggression. But if you have a person who is already frustrated, angry, and then they see violent events, it's much more likely that those events can then interact and trigger the aggressive response.

S: Might crystalize in their mind ...

GS: That's right.

S: ... an outlet for what they're feeling.

P: Almost like propaganda it sounds like, to a degree.

S: Yeah. Like the Nazi propaganda crystalizing frustration in Germany or undercurrent of hatred against Jews, something like that.

GS: Yeah, I think it can work that way. It can work that way. One of the popular ideas that we know does not have much support is the notion that viewing violence can actually be therapeutic.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: That idea was very popular for awhile under a hypothesis called the Catharsis Hypothesis.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: That as it turns out really doesn't have much empirical support in the literature at all. I would say that that theoretical idea is dead.

S: OK.

GS: Even though the popular culture still sort of trots that out all the time.

S: Although, honestly, I haven't heard that one myself.

GS: That often makes it's appearance on talk shows.

S: OK. Does the literature explore types of violence. For example, does cartoon violence have any effect, or does there have to be a certain amount of realism to the violence in order for it to have an effect?

GS: Realistic violence in general is more likely to have an effect, although we do have studies with children that show that cartoons can also yield these same sorts of imitative effects, particularly with young kids who have not maybe learned the distinction between reality and fantasy. Maybe children up to around the age of six or seven, even cartoon violence can have the same sorts of effects.

S: Because it's real to them.

GS: Yeah. That's right.

S: But in adults, either it hasn't been studied. Does the effect of cartoon violence drop off with age?

GS: Yes. Again, there's not a lot of research today ...

S: Yeah.

GS: ... on some of the adult cartoons, but ...

S: Like The Simpsons or something?

GS: So there are still some open questions there.

S: Right.

P: On a related line, when I read an article of yours that you published back in April, called Don't Bank On Violence In Summer Blockbusters To Fill Theaters. I thought that was a very interesting piece, and one of the things I took from it, which something I always believed, was that people like violence in movies because they get afraid, and it's the fear, the adrenaline of the fear, that is alluring. But I believe in your piece it says that's not exactly the case.

GS: Well, I have devoted some attention to this topic of the enjoyment of violence, and why people like it, and whether or not it's really as popular or appealing to people as the industry seems to think that it might be. Basically, what I'm finding so far is that violence itself may not be adding all that much to the enjoyment of the entertainment experience. In my most recent study, which actually will be published in hard-copy in December in the journal Communications Reports, it's out already I think in the online version, we actually took a film, a popular film, The Fugitive, and we cut out fifteen minutes of violence, which was in that case almost all the violence in the movie. We randomly assigned people to watch one of the two versions, either the edited or the unedited version, and we made sure that people weren't familiar with it so they didn't recognize what had been done to the film. What we found was people enjoyed the edited version as much as the original version with the violence.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Taking the violence out didn't make any difference. And that's consistent the few other studies in the literature that have been done using that same sort of strategy. We also find that if you look at the relationship between box office gross of motion pictures over the last five years, and independent ratings of say an online organization that rates films in terms of violent content, you don't find any relationship between how much money a film is making and the level of violent content in the film. So, the evidence seems to suggest that people are not necessarily enjoying violence for its own sake.

S: Right.

GS: Now what they may enjoy is they may enjoy other things that are correlated incidentally with violence. So violent films may also contain more sexuality, or they may also contain ...

S: More action.

GS: ... more action or more excitement, exactly. And so people may be deriving some gratification from those things. In the case of fear, it is true that they may be getting an arousal effect from being scared, and maybe just the fact that the movie ends after the action, and people walk away from the theater with a profound sense of relief, they may end up remembering those films as ones that they really enjoyed, because the arousal from the fright sort of transfers to the feeling of relief, which is a positive thing at the end. And so people may go away from these films and think "Man, that was really great!" But actually while they were viewing the film, that's not what they were thinking ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: And that's not how they were feeling.

The Roller Coaster Effect (47:20) [edit]

B: Would that also apply to something like an amusement park ride?

GS: Exactly. I call it the roller coaster effect. It's really the same thing. People may not — when somebody is up on the top rail looking over contemplating that they might fall off, that's not fun. That really is a negative emotion. But when the ride is over, all that adrenaline is transferred to the end of the ride, and you get off, and you're relieved, and particularly you can say "I made it. I did it!" Now you can brag about this, and all that positive feeling is intensified by the arousal that's still in your system. So it's what we call the "excitation transfer effect". The arousal's transferring to the new emotion.

S: Right.

GS: And we don't separate the arousal very well. We don't attribute the arousal "Oh, that's left over from before." It's just feeds into the next emotion.

B: That reminds me of an amusement park saying about a lot of their roller-coaster-type rides. Basically it says "Fear minus death equals fun."


GS: That's a very good summary of it.

B: And it's true. I love all those rides. The crazier and scarier the better. But I wonder: how do you actually test that? Can you somehow induce an adrenaline rush without fear, and then kind of see the effects of that so you kind of teasing apart the adrenaline after effects and the fear. Because I don't know, I think fear is — maybe it's hard to distinguish, but I think fear is fun. I've gone sky-diving, scuba diving, and I've done lot's of crazy stuff like that, and it's exhilarating.

S: Yeah. How do you separate the physiological from the psychological effects of fear, I guess?

GS: Well. Actually on this theory of excitation transfer, you can show first of all that — we actually measure physiological arousal, first of all. So we have a person's self-report of their emotion, and we can get a gauge of their self-reported intensity for what they're feeling. And then we can also look at their physiological arousal.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: What's been done in this theory is we are able to show that the intensity of a subsequent emotion that follows maybe a media-induces emotion like fear or ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... anger, or whatever, the intensity of the subsequently induced emotion in another situation is a direct function of how much arousal they had while they were watching the film.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Not only that, but we can also show then that if we substitute in another arousing source other than a media exposure, so we have them jog around the track, and then we expose them to the same new emotion. It's the same thing. As a function of how aroused they got when they jogged, they respond with the same emotional intensity as the people who responded after they watched the film. So it's really — there's really very good evidence that the emotional intensity that people experience is a function of the arousal that ...

S: Hm, hm.

GS: ... came before. And it doesn't matter whether it came from a negative emotion or a positive emotion. It's just arousal. Arousal is arousal is arousal. It's not (unintelligible).

S: Interesting. Of course for the point view of movie producers, they don't really care about all this. All they really care about is what people feel like when they walk out of the theater.

GS: That's right.

S: If they walk out of the theater thinking that the movie was great and that produces a positive buzz about the movie, more people will see it. It doesn't matter if they were miserable for two hours, as long as when they come out they're happy.

GS: That's right. In fact, there's a testable hypothesis here to my knowledge hasn't been tested yet in the literature. For a while in the scary film genre it was sort of popular to have an unresolved ending where the threat is really kind of still lurking out there.

S: Right.

GS: You end up coming out of the film still with a feeling of uneasiness. It really isn't — the tension hasn't been relieved for you. I would predict, based on this theory, that all other things being equal, people who see a film like that are less likely to report that they enjoyed the experience and would want to go back to another one of these kinds of movies.

S: Right.

GS: As opposed to a person who had been able to go through the full relief sort of syndrome.

S: You need an alternate ending study.

GS: That's right. Exactly.

S: Two ending to the same movie to see how that affects. Interesting.

The Internet as Media (52:12)[edit]

S: So we are running a little short on time, but let me turn to one last topic. Of course if you're out there listening to this podcast, the Skeptics' Guide, then you have a computer, you are probably somewhat internet savvy. A lot of the research you've done is on television, but it certainly seems to me that television is merging with the internet. So have you begun to look at the internet and the world-wide web as a mass media outlet and its effects on belief or information? Is that happening in the literature, your personal research, or in others?

GS: Yeah, generally speaking you're right on target. This is where the cutting edge is right now in communication research. I serve on a number of editorial boards, and I would say right now, oh wow, I would say maybe seventy to eighty percent of the articles that I'm reviewing right now have to do with new technology.

S: Right.

GS: In terms of marrying that with this topic of the paranormal, I have not personally yet done that, although clearly that's there to be done.

S: Right.

GS: And I haven't seen any other articles on that general topic. There's no question that the world-wide web now is a very important source of information, and if you go exploring on this topic of the paranormal, you are exposed to all kinds of information.

S: Believe me, we know.

GS: I'm sure you do. So clearly this is a very important topic, I think, ...

S: Yeah.

GS: ... for the future, and one that we'll no doubt study.

S: Anything surprising or different in the literature on the internet or the web that distinguishes it from other forms of mass media.

GS: I really think that interactivity, just the personal involvement, I think many scholars feel that the cause of the level of involvement that people have with the web, that the effects of the content might tend to be more pronounced.

S: Hm, hm.

GS: Although we've had a difficult time I think so far really saying that for certain. The number of studies that we have that are really well-designed — as with any new medium, it takes awhile to develop an experimental paradigm that works, and I think a lot of researchers are still sort of feeling their way through the internet and trying to get a paradigm.

S: Right.

GS: It's hard to say whether or not that's true. That is certainly a theoretical concept that would appear to have merit.

S: So that's another variable that you could manipulate in your own research: the degree to which the content is interactive.

GS: That's right.

S: And how does that affect belief?

GS: That's right. Absolutely.

S: Something you think you'll do?

GS: I'm getting to the point in my career now where I'm realizing that the number of studies that I can do are limited, and so ...

S: Right.

GS: I'm having to really prioritize. But that's on the list. There is some internet research that's out there on the list. That's probably one of them.

Belgium Adolescents Study (55:26)[edit]

S: Is there anything you're working on right now?

GS: I am gearing up right now for a large-scale survey of Belgium adolescents, that I'm going to do. I'm going to be going to Belgium in the spring and hopefully doing a comparative study with US adolescents, not only in terms of media exposure and belief in the paranormal, because a lot of the programs in Belgium are the same as the ones that we see here, but I'm also interested in carrying this now into the area of beliefs about basic scientific phenomena. I think the flip side of paranormal beliefs is what do people believe about science?

S: Right.

GS: And what is their understanding about scientific knowledge. And I really haven't done a whole lot in that area, yet, and I really would like to.

S: Why Belgium?

B: I think you'll be equally amazed.

GS: Just an accident. Purdue has a — we're in the process of formalizing a relationship with the University in Leuven, and I just came back from Belgium, in fact, and we are planning a sort of an exchange program there, and it turns out they've got a very vibrant media studies unit and large-scale surveys planned, and we're going to be collaborating with them. It's really just an opportunity that fell into my lap, you might say.

S: Sounds good. Well, Glenn, we are out of time. Thank you so much for being on the Skeptics' Guide. Again, this is been Professor Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University telling us about mass media and belief in the paranormal and all sorts of other topics. Thanks for being on the Skeptics' Guide.

GS: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

E: Thank you.

S: Hope to have you on again. Perry, Bob, Evan: thanks again for joining me.

E: Thank you, Steve.

B: Good night.

P: Next week.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Resonance effect: Having a paranormal experience, then seeing something paranormal on TV increases likelihood of belief.[1]
  • A scientist publicly criticizing a paranormal belief increases the belief's credibility in the public.
  • Editing the violence out of a violent movie does no harm to peoples' enjoyment of the movie[2]


  1. Resonance effect
  2. Study on enjoyment of violence in movies (PDF)
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