Maybe Media Is the Real Opiate of the People

One of today's great untold stories — or, I should say, it keeps trying to get itself told and is usually mercilessly thrashed or ignored entirely — is the degree to which our behavior is manipulated and conditioned by media.

Most everyone has heard about the studies (more than 200 at last count) that show a direct correlation between increased aggression and exposure to violence portrayed in media. The most compelling of this research suggests that the visual media in particular — television, movies and even video games — employ psychological techniques such as desensitization and Pavlovian conditioning which change how we think about and react to violent behavior.

Of course, the entertainment and advertising industries dismiss these studies, saying it's impossible that their little ol' movie or TV show or 30-second ad or point-and-shooter could actually influence anyone's behavior.

That's what they say to Congress, anyhow, when they get called on the carpet for irresponsible programming.

But how do their protestations square with the gazillion-dollar business of TV advertising, in particular? This is an industry which is based entirely on the proposition that it can and does, in fact, impel people to buy a new car or a new pair of shoes, to drink more beer or get online — to do something different than they've been doing, in some shape or form.

So one of those statements has to be a lie, and if you follow the money, you can make a pretty good guess which one.

Once you are willing to consider this premise (and if you've read the studies and/or are willing to honestly observe your own behavior, it's pretty hard not to), it becomes apparent that a whole lot more than our attitudes toward violence may be influenced by visual media.

Not long ago, for example, it occurred to me that the rising obesity rate of our TV-addicted population might actually have something to do with the fact that any given hour of programming will yield an infinity of food porn — sexy, slender women shoving two-pound dripping hamburgers into lipsticked mouths, or normal-sized families cheerily gorging themselves at tables piled with giant lobsters and steaks and all manner of things oozing fat and sugar.

I mentioned this theory of mine to a colleague last November and, remarkably, the very next day, a blurb in The New York Times' science section announced that a Stanford University study had correlated children's obesity with television watching, and that the American Institute for Cancer Research found that most Americans overestimated a normal-sized portion of food by about 25 percent.

Neither of these two studies directly linked TV's food bonanza with overeating, but they do suggest a connection between what our eyes see and what our brains subsequently do with that information.

It's then no giant leap to wonder whether the constant barrage of TV "news" and political programming — from the Clinton-Lewinsky extravaganza to Sunday morning's meet-the-pundits ritual to the "coverage" of the latest batch of presidential hopefuls — is another case of media desensitization in action.

Could TV itself, the place where most Americans get their daily fix of news, actually be causing America's vast political ennui and depressed voter turnout? Have we become so anesthetized by what we watch that we require the specter of Jesse Ventura or Donald Trump as president to engage, even superficially, in the political process?

The studies that correlate media exposure with a flattened cultural affect about violence would support that general premise.

But as we know, correlation does not prove causation. To prove that TV "causes" violence, for example, you'd have to conduct a controlled, double-blind experiment which, if successful, would result in someone committing a violent act.

The human subjects committee at any responsible research lab or university would never approve such an experiment, and for good reason.

But it must be possible to set up a sufficiently rigorous, violence-free experiment to measure the actual neurological and behavioral effects of visual media. Wouldn't we all like to know what really happens — what happens in our brains, what humans can be impelled to do — as a result of spending so many hours in front of TVs and computers and movie screens?

Considering the massive amount of visual stimuli that is pumped into our brains every day — and the astronomical profits made by the industries who keep the flow going — this seems like a story eminently worth reporting.