Tuesday, February 03, 2009

'New research proves: Happiness makes you sad.'

Interesting study out todayinteresting on multiple levels. Performed by psychologist Brian Primack and his team at the Pitt School of Medicine, and published in this month's Archives of General Psychology, the study followed 4000 teens of both genders, cataloging their TV-watching habits and their respective levels of "subjective well-being,"* and it poses on that basis that excessive TV watching leads to depression. Sort of. That's the spin being put on it, though Primack admits (in the fine print) that he really can't posit a causal relationship. All he knows for sure, more or less, is that there's some overall link between watching TV and depression, and among teenage boys in particular; for every additional hour of TV watched, the correlation with depression goes up 8 percent. So what's interesting to me, right off, is that we have a study that does not in and of itself prove anything about TV leading to depression, yet that's how it's being framed. So much of what passes for "scientific research" nowadays is like this, especially in the so-called soft sciences like psychology: A study will present datawhich is great, as long as the research methodology is soundbut then it goes on to deduce far-reaching implications that are less great because the researchers are drawing inferences they have no business drawing. In the case at hand, for example, it appears just as likely that there's something about being depressed that causes you to watch more TV (or simply that lonely people have nowhere to go, therefore they sit home and watch reruns of Matlock). We have no way of knowing which is the chicken and which is the egg.

But if TV does cause depression, Primack's theory of the mechanism of that action is even more interesting: "As someone watches television portrayals over and over again with people more beautiful than they are, selling products they can't afford...will they start to feel bad about themselves?" Reporter Veronica Torrejon puts it this way in the lede of her story on the study: "Watching the superhero cop on television save the day and win the affection of his sexy crime-fighting partner may whittle away at an awkward teenage boy's self-esteem and even lead to depression by the time he becomes a young man, a new study has found." First of all
and I'm belaboring this point because what we have here is a succinct demonstration of how these things take on a life of their own once my esteemed colleagues in media get hold of themthat is not what the study "has found." That is a supposition on the part of the lead researcher, and even he's equivocal on the point. Torrejon took Primack's hypothetical and rewrote it in more affirmative language that, in my opinion, she shouldn't have used.** So if you've been wondering why we all haven't died yet from depletion of the ozone layer, or avian flu, or the deer tick's declaration of war against humankind, or (to shift contexts) why there aren't nuclear suitcase bombs exploding all across America, maybe now you have a somewhat better understanding. As noted in my piece for Skeptic last year, journalists do this all the time: They take a smattering of inconclusive information that (a) seems to support an agenda they're pushing and/or (b) lends itself to dramatic/alarmist writing, and they run with it.

Which at long last (whew) brings us to the main takeaway for me (and SHAMblog's purposes): Doesn't Primack's reasoning contradict, or at least call into question, that whole "role model" thing? I thought that if, say, a black teenage male saw Denzel get the girl, or Tiger lay waste to the rest of the field in the final of some major golf event, or Barack dance the night away at his various inaugural balls, such an experience was supposed to spur the kid on to similar excellence and achievement in his own life. Right? The last thing it was supposed to do was make him feel bad or inferior! Or is the new study suggesting that there's a delicate balance between Barack serving as a role model and Barack serving as an impossibly high standard to meet?

I guess we'll have to wait till the next study for answers. Stay tuned (except for teenagers, that is).

* which, again, is what you and I call happiness.
** And I don't think Torrejon gets herself off the hook by including the word may. You can use may in saying almost anything, and her opening paragraph clearly misleads, overstating what we should feel comfortable about concluding from the Pitt study.


sassy sasha said...

another good one steve! i lauhged so hard at the title that people in surrounding cubicles took time out from surfing porn to look at me ;-)

hey, verif word: matewtme!!! LOL

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve

I haven't read this post but was wondering if you would comment on something that I've just pickep up on some other American blogs. Its got to do with the difference the media has treated Katrina and what's happening in Kentucky. I would love to know what you think?


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner, not sure I follow you. Are you talking about the recent ice storms and the federal response to same, in contrast to the way Bush handled Hurricane Katrina?

Debbie said...

I tried commenting earlier, but there seemed to be a bust. Sorry if this is a (kind-of) duplicate.

'But if TV does cause depression, Primack's theory of the mechanism of that action is even more interesting: "As someone watches television portrayals over and over again with people more beautiful than they are, selling products they can't afford...will they start to feel bad about themselves?"'

This is why I watch Coronation Street and The Vicar of Dibley. And Corner Gas. ;)

Seriously though, could one's reaction to what they watch be related to the origin and nature of it? I may be more inspired by someone coming from behind to win the Masters in real life than a movie about it. However, watching a stick-thin 30-something get the guy isn't particularly uplifting. It's boring and formula.

Just a thought.

Steven Sashen said...

I'm not sure which I dislike more: "scientists" reporting correlations, or reporters who print them as if they were causal.

Both make me scream (Literally. Ask my wife what happens when I read the "science" section of any news magazine).

Anonymous said...

This study was done on romantic comedies too. Romantic comedies are killing marriages in the United States. As mentioned in previous posts, people want to live in fairyland and life is just not going to hold up.

Sarsabu said...

So Eastenders is the reason I feel so good about myself!

Jen said...

Steve, this brings up a sensitive issue for me, and reminds me of an important friendship I almost lost. The issue is role models and the fine line we walk when we attempt to mimic them. A person can serve as a role model but in a friendship, it is important to realize the difference between modeling behavior and actually being a model. There is a difference. Someone who serves as a role model for you does not necessarily have all the information you need in order to make the best decision. In fact, even if the role model did have all the pieces to your puzzle, he or she might make a different choice, one that you know would be wrong for you. In my case, I had revealed some personal information to a friend who did what anyone would do with it: she processed it according to her own experience, which had been similar to mine. This apparently led led her to expect that I would respond as she did, that is that I would "model" her behavior under similar circumstances. I came to a different way of resolving my difficulties, however, and she decided that she could no longer support me and refused to see me when I suggested getting together.

I believe she felt that her life was something I should model my life after; when I chose a path she disagreed with, however, it made a difference in how she related to me. I was rejected because of it, and felt the sting of her disapproval because of it, too.

Fortunately, time healed whatever had come between us and she is friendly with me again. I am not sure what changed in her; maybe (I hope) it was the realization that what she expected me to do, thought was best for me to do, was not in fact the best thing, even if it is what she would have done. Although I was very angry at her and hurt by her lack of confidence in my ability to decide something that in reality was none of her business, I came to realize she had her reasons for abandoning me at a time when I really needed a good friend. She just couldn't be that friend, and I suspect it was more about her own pain over her own personal tragedy that unfolded quite differently than mine did. (Yes, there was real tragedy in my situation; another very dear friend was alienated, too.)

Long story short, I never lost respect for this friend who was unable to support me during a time of real need. And apparently, she didn't lose respect for me either. Maybe we each needed for that thing to happen in order to grow in ways that wouldn't have happened otherwise. She is still a role model for me.

Jen said...

Steve, a friend sent me this link yesterday (a clip from his local news) and I thought to share it here after reading your article, Journalist-Bites-Reality! How broadcast journalism is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil.


What exactly did this student say, I wonder. Curious, isn't it? Would love to read that kid's blog, see his side of the story.

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: Whenever I see stories such as this one--and you see them more and more often these days, as the assault on free expression intensifies--I am reminded of Roger Hodge's devilishly clever column for Harper's a few years ago, wherein he ruminates about his hypothetical pleasure at seeing George Bush dead. I should do some research to see if there were any repercussions from that.

Jen said...

Well, since you mention our ex-president, I am compelled to share something else I found the other day, the top rated (most viewed) article at the Dallas Observer site:

George W. Bush, Texas' Prodigal Son, Returns

I came across it by accident, while looking up something else over there. The comments are ... well, interesting. :)