Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Science Behind Your Parents Telling You Not to Watch Too Much TV

The "house of Mad Science" is finally pretty much rid of the flu bug! Now, hopefully, I'll blog a bit more frequently. However, there are some big things coming up with Mrs. Mad Scientist going to Seattle to welcome a new niece to our family. We are also finally cranking up data collection in the PRIME Lab with some exciting studies that I am sure I'll mention here once results start rolling in.

In this blog entry I want to share with you that there is actually good science to back up what any good parent knows. Too much TV is a really bad thing. Even more important, this science backs up what the apostle Paul admonished followers of Christ to do in Phillipians 4:8 when he said "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things."

One of the most common media effects theory is termed "Cultivation Theory." The main premise is that individuals who watch a lot of television will overtime begin to believe that the "real world" is similar to what is presented on TV. The primary evidence of this effect has been found for peoples' crime estimates. Also, known as the "mean and scary world hypothesis," this effect takes the form of heavy viewers of television perceiving the world to be more violent than it actually is. However, in theory, this cultivation effect can carry over to other beliefs and judgements. Heavy media exposure for instance can fundamentally shape young males' social reality judgements concerning how to behave toward and communicate with women by "cultivating" particular beliefs about how "successful" men and women behave. Numerous studies have also demonstrated that media use can for instance "cultivate" in young women a belief of what the "ideal" female body looks like and how to present that body to the world. One particular sad point in this line of research is that there appears to be a link between pressure to attain the "ideal" body presented through the media and eating disorders.

The most recent research suggests that the reason the cultivation effect occurs is that the human brain doesn't always distinctly attach the source of information with information stored in long term memory so over time we forget that, for instance, the way we think male and female relationships exist is based on distorted and all too often immoral information stored in our memory from the media we consume. This is grounded in the very structure of human memory. Extremely brilliant cognitive psychologists have proposed that human memory consists of interconnected nodes of information and that connections between the nodes are created, strengthened and weakened as we perceive and store into memory, information, including any media content, in our environment. Therefore, if an individual is constantly exposing his or herself to the world as presented on TV, or any other form of media, connections between long-term memory nodes representing that information will be the strongest making the media world view the most accessible in memory.

Thus, according to good science, the media content we expose ourselves to and therefore let our thoughts dwell on will fundamentally shape the information we have accessible in memory and in turn have some effect on how we perceive and interact with God's world. This is the science behind too much TV being a bad thing and Phillipians 4:8, because if we follow this verse and as much as possible try to appropriately manage our media use, then whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- things that are excellent or praiseworthy will be what is most accessbile in our mind.

May God bless you with a praiseworthy mind.
Mad Scientist.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Superbowl of Brains

I am really slow getting my superbowl ad blog but I've been fighting a nasty flu bug that seems like it's knocking out half of Mizzou. I was going to join in on the millions of people giving their reviews of superbowl ads but I came across this interesting article on This article gives me the chance to throw out hopefully more interesting thoughts than just another opinon on the ads.

This article describes superbowl ad research done by a company in California using FMRI brain scans of individuals watching the superbowl ads. This company has actually been doing this post game ad report for a couple years now, I think, but this year the research release drives home a point I really try to make with my students. The brain scan data indicates that advertisers went over the top on trying to develop edgy, attention grabbing content at the expense of achieving a positive communication effect for the advertised brand. As I tell my students, attention is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an ad to have a positive effect on the target. The FMRI data reported on this year's superbowl ads indicated that several of the ads evoked very strong response in the Amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for processing threat and anxiety, but very little activity in other areas. Apparently, stimuli that evoke a strong response in the Amygdala are likely to be memorable but the memory is NEGATIVE! Not exactly the best effect for a client who just spent 2.6 million dollars placing a superbowl ad!!! The brand that "wins" the award for demonstrating this negative effect....drum roll please.....Snickers (2 men kissing ad). This ad evoked the strongest Amygdala response in viewers with little other activity in other brain areas. Since this ad has run, reaction has been so negative to the ad, Snickers cancelled it's plans to continue airing it in other programs.

Some of my students intuitively want to argue that even bad publicity is still publicity that can ultimately pay off for a brand. However, I do my best to completely stamp out this view. I pride myself on being a fairly open minded teacher but this is one view I will never be able to buy into. Time will tell if Snickers sales actually suffer as a result of their completely reprehensible ad. However, the logic of bad publicity "magically" turning into a positive effect for a brand is not something I think intelligent and ETHICAL brand managers ought to gamble money on. Not only is the logic flawed, but this kind of thinking can lead to trashy, junk ads that represent the lowest of the low of advertising.

I wish you all health in this cold and flu season:)
Mad Scientist

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior

I normally wouldn't be back so soon to write another blog entry but my last post generated a great question by Ms. Weinreich. It's posted on the comment page but I wanted to forefront it on my blog because this is exactly the kind of discussion I love engaging in! Her comment is as follows:

"That's very interesting. Thanks for sharing how that works. Have you also correlated the psychophysiology with behavioral intention or practice? I wonder how well the attention/emotion combination predicts future behavior."

The link between how an individual cognitively/emotionally processes a media message and behaviroal response is a huge challenge to the research I do. Unfortunately, in the current state of my work I can only theorize about such a link. I believe that processes engaged by the brain in perceiving, making sense of, and storing in memory information from a media message lay the foundation for an eventual behavioral effect. Information stored in memory from a health campaign message is information that can shape attitudes and eventual behavior. However, there are a whole lot of other variables that will eventually influence say, a decision to start or avoid using tobacco. Perhaps the key for effective health communication efforts is to get individuals to cognitively/emotionally process campaign messages in a way that leads targeted individuals to store information in long-term memory in a way that supports the development of negative attitudes toward unhealthy behaviors and positive toward healthy ones. Where my research currently is at is a stage where we are trying to systematically identify specific features of messages that engage cognitive/emotional processes in the brain which are likely to accomplish that.

In the near future I plan to start moving more towards linking cognitive/emotional processing as indexed through physiological measures with attitudes and behavioral responses. The use of implicit attitude measures will be part of the new line of research. I also hope to conduct experiments using more longitudinal designs measuring processing of health messages and then tracking individuals' decision making over time and correlating that with responses to experimental messages. EEG (measurement of localized brain waves) also presents a potentially promising way to index the ability of specific types of messages to lead individuals to have approach or avoid behavioral responses to "cues" related to a health issue (i.e. response to the visual presentation of a beer can if the message is about preventing alcohol abuse).

Another, interesting direction, specifically related to the fear and disgust study mentioned in my last post concerns how strength of the emotional response evoked might affect attitudes and behavior. One interesting result we obtained in that experiment is a significant main effect of level of fear appeal on self-reported arousal and unpleasantness but no such effect on our physiological indicators of arousal (skin conductance) and negative emotional response (corrugator). It's as if individuals "think" that high fear appeal messages are more arousing and unpleasant than low fear appeal messages but don't actually "feel" the physiological component of that emotional response while viewing the message. I think it could be that this disconnect between "thinking" and "feeling" the intended emotion in a health message could be why some messages fail to accomplish attitudinal and behavioral objectives. Future experiments will explore this issue.

In closing, I want to thank Ms. Weinreich again for raising an interesting question. Ultimately, in my rambling answer is the bottom line that I just don't currently know how cognitive/emotional processing of a message predicts behavioral responses. However, I hope you have found the description of how I intend to head toward answering that question interesting. Also, I appreciate any feedback and help as I move toward designing the experiments described here. This kind of discussion is what it will take to do good science!

Have a great week.
Mad Scientist.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Psychophysiology and Media: Intro to my mad science

In my last post I mentioned a hope that research myself and other colleagues do might improve media content. One specific area I research concerns the design of effective health communication campaign messages. I thought a brief review of an experiment conducted in this area would make for a useful review of psychophysiology, one of the primary methods I use to study how the human brain processes media messages. The fundamental assumption of psychophysisology as a research method is that how physiological systems in the human body (i.e. Heart) respond while a person is engaged in processing information in their environment can be used to indicate psychological processes (i.e. attention).

The experiment I am going to tell you about is an experiement where we were interested in finding out how fear appeal and the presence of disgust evoking scenes in anti-tobacco use messages affect intensity of negative emotional response and attention allocated to encoding the message in memory. Fear appeal is a message strategy that focuses on trying to persuade targeted individuals by presenting a threat to their well being. Many anti-tobacco messages have also adopted a strategy of including disgusting scenes such as images of diseased body organs (i.e. a smoker's lung) in an attempt to intensify negative emotional responses to tobacco use.

Our experimental design was a 2 (Fear appeal: high vs. low) X 2 (Disgust image: present or not present). High fear appeal ads in our study focused on "death" as the threat component of the message. Participants in the experiment were undergraduate college students. Our physiological indicator of intensity of negative emotional response was corrugator muscle activity. The corrugator muscle is located along your eyebrow and it has been shown to be involved in expressing a negative emotional response. Our physiological indicator of attention was heart rate. Heart rate has been shown to decelerate as a person pays more attention to encoding media content like television into memory.

As you can see in the included charts, corrugator muscle activity across viewing our anti-tobacco ads was strongest for low fear appeal ads that included disgusting images. These ads also resulted in the strongest and most consistent pattern of cardiac deceleration (slowest heart rate). This pattern of results suggests that low fear, high disgust eliciting anti-tobacco television ads are probably the most effective at evoking negative emotion towards tobacco use and capturing attention. This suggests that the most effective message strategy for anti-tobacco ads targeting young adults is to position tobacco use as a dirty, disgusting behavior and present the visual images in the ad to back that claim up!

This is just a little example of the media research done in the PRIME Lab. I'll present other studies as they come in. I hope this has been interesting to read. I'd enjoy engaging in any discussion about health messages you might like to raise. On a side note, since I am an advertising Professor it is fun for me to enjoy the "Superbowl"...of advertising. I'll comment after the big game about whose ad I think was worth the 2.5 million dollars advertisers are paying to be on the superbowl this year!

God bless.
Mad Scientist

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Media Cure


We've been off our "media fast" since Saturday but getting ready for another exciting semester at Mizzou kept me from blogging earlier. I highly recommend fasting from media. The quiet is WONDERFUL and it's nice to use that time to connect with God.

I said that I would mention what I hope are a couple of bright spots in terms of improving media content. One specific ray of hope that has been brought to my attention is the Independent Christian film festival sponsored by Vision Forum and held each fall in San Antonio. Eventhough I have some strong disagreement with the theology of this organization it is promising to see resources put into encouraging the production of positive media content.

What I hope is a second bright spot is the research I and other colleagues do on how different ways of producing media content influence the way indidividuals pay attention to, emotionally respond to, and remember media they are exposed to. We believe that what the brain does at this level lays the foundation for all the effects media content might have on a person. One major reason you see a lot of sex and or violence in media content is producers intuitively believe this content is effective at grabbing attention....and attention is the first step in the process of capturing an audience...and in the real life business of media...audience equals MONEY! Optimistically I believe that research into brain processes different features of media content engage during media use has the potential to provide insight into how to grab an audience without resorting to cheap thrills:) In coming posts I'll share the results of some of the work we are doing on advertising in the PRIME Lab.

Have a blessed week.
Mad Scientist.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Media "Fast"

As we get closer to the start of classes here at Mizzou I am forcing my brain to think more "science" like thoughts...perhaps this means this blog could actually get some posts in the upcoming future besides my family news...not that the personal stuff is all bad, I hope you enjoy reading about special "life" events, after all, I am finding this an easy way to keep my good friends God has blessed me with updated. None the less, since the blog is tittled "Media Brain" I better blog the occasional title relevant thought! Before I get to a brief thought today I want to welcome my friend the Audio Prof to my site and say thanks for the encouraging comment. The Audio Prof is one of my best friends and my academic brother! All of you should also go check out his blog. I have it linked on my page. He and I have a bit under a year to get our book on using psychophysiological methods to study cognitive/emotional processing of media done...YIKES!

Here is my brief media thought for the day. It's not "science" related because when I have my "social scientist hat" on I must be more objective than what I am going to be in expressing this thought. The church my wife and I fellowship with is currently having a week of focused spiritual growth for the married couples. Now, I know every week should be full of spiritual growth but it is good to highlight it even more than what a busy daily life typically allows every now and then. As part of this week, we are spending the next three days in what is practically a "media fast." This means no television, no radio, no internet, no videogames (not difficult for me)...well you get the picture. The intent of the fast is to temporarily minimize our exposure to the ideas of "the world" so that we can focus more clearly on our true goal and priority as Christians. To the "media professor" in me, it is telling that a large proportion of the programing delivered through today's media, in all the numerous forms, has become something Christians feel they should "fast" from and in a lot of cases should probably completely abstain from to become more focused and faithful. After, my "media fast" I will try to provide my thoughts on what I view as some bright spots in the criticism I have just leveled at my own field:) Logging onto this blog is included in my fast so if you comment, please realize I won't see it for a few days. God bless.

Mad Scientist.

Friday, January 5, 2007

A holiday 50 years in the making!

Well, it's still the semester break at Mizzou so rather than try to write something "science like" I will briefly describe the amazing holiday my family had, the result of a 50 year marriage! As I mentioned earlier the primary purpose of the trip to Montana was to celebrate my parents' 50th anniversary. I feel extremely blessed to have the honor of seeing my parents feed each other cake on this incredible day. Unfortunately, in today's society a 50 + year marriage is likely to become a rarity. Take a look at the couple feeding each other cake in the pic. My wish to anyone reading this is that you also find a love that lasts like that!

After the anniversary party, we all went skiing at Discovery Basin in Montana. Val and I were surprised at how easily skiing came back to us and we didn't feel as sore and old as we thought we would:) Other highlights included an evening of fiddle and mandolin music compliments of a nephew and his friend, a snowy night spent in the hot spring at Fairmont Hot Springs resort, and delicious steaks grilled on dad's Big Green Egg (this grill really is amazing!). I hope you and your family enjoyed peaceful holiday time and I wish everyone happiness and health in 2007!

Mad Scientist.