Monday, November 20, 2006

Strong Memory Helps You See Reality

During my first semester as a mass communications graduate student, I learned about George Gerbner's theory of cultivation.

In short, Gerbner argued that television cultivates a view of the social world that is different than the actual world. As an example of this, you can ask people to answer questions such as:

During any given week about how many people ______ out of 100 are involved in some kind of violence?

Then you can ask them how much television they watch. The somewhat surprising thing is that as people watch more television, their answers to these questions increase. The more TV, the meaner the world. Heavy television viewers also think that there are more lawyers, more rich people, and more infidelity.

There are many nuances and limitations to cultivation theory, and I will not review them here.

However, some of us have wondered how this happens in the brain. That is, how do real-world memories and television memories get mushed together to come up with a single number? It is an interesting area to study. Leading this cognitive approach has been University of Texas at San Antonio's L. J. Shrum.

Shrum has found many interesting things, including the fact that if you mention TV to people before they make the social reality estimates, then the effect of TV is removed.

This is especially interesting because it suggests that people can ignore TV memories if they try.

Shrum also found that if you tell people to try hard, they avoid the so-called cultivation effect.

Back in 2001 I had the idea that in order to ignore TV memories, you had to know that they were from television. That means that sometime in the past while you were watching television, you had to store both the memory and the fact that it was from television. Only if you stored that last bit could you use that fact to ignore the memory later.

This idea came to me when I ran across Larry Squire's remote TV memory test. In a nutshell, the test uses names of former television programs cancelled after one-season to test memory for time specific events.

My rather simple idea was that people who were good at this type of memory should be able to avoid the cultivation effect.

The first study supported the idea. Participants with good remote TV memory were less likely to exhibit the cultivation effect no matter how much TV they watched.

Then I wanted to combine this idea with Shrum's manipulation. My idea was that people with good remote TV memory would especially be able to avoid the cultivation effect.

So we dragged 224 people into the lab and tested them. Half were told (basically) to try hard, and half were told to go fast.

Unfortunately, we failed to replicate Shrum's finding. Heavy TV viewers exhibited the cultivation effect even when told to go fast.

However, there is some small shred of evidence for my idea. Here is a figure showing crime estimates as a function of both remote memory and instructions.

As you can see in the figure, there is something going on here, and it's exactly what I would have predicted. When told to "try hard," people with a high score on the remote TV memory test were able to give answers more like the real world. However, those with a low score on the remote TV memory test were unable to avoid this mistake.

The problem is that after controlling for variables known to affect social reality estimates, the statistical test behind this figure (i.e., the interaction) is not statistically significant. The same test is significant for estimates of affluence (below).

Sadly, hit-and-miss is not what I waited 5 years to discover. We're still working on it. It still makes sense to me. And the data suggest that something is going on.


Post a Comment

<< Home