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New Book Examines How Entertainment Media Shapes Beliefs


Anthony Gierzynski - DAN BOLLES
  • Dan Bolles
  • Anthony Gierzynski

When you binge-watch 14 episodes of "Game of Thrones," the HBO show is doing more than just imparting the epic fantasy saga of Jon Snow, the Mother of Dragons and Tyrion Lannister. It's also helping to shape your political worldview.

That's according to The Political Effects of Entertainment Media: How Fictional Worlds Affect Real World Political Perspectives, the latest book from Anthony Gierzynski, chair of the political science department at the University of Vermont. In it, he argues that entertainment media — books, TV shows and movies — can play a subtle but significant role in how we view and relate to the political world around us.

"In looking at the role the media plays in shaping how we see the political world, my discipline, political science, has focused exclusively on the news," says Gierzynski, who has been teaching at the nexus of politics and media at UVM since 1992. "A few years ago, it became clear to me that we're missing part of the picture," he continues. "There is an awful lot of political content outside of news."

That realization led to his 2013 book Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, which examined how the book and movie versions of J.K. Rowling's famous boy wizard influenced the politics of those who grew up on them. Through empirical research he conducted with assistance from his students, Gierzynski expands on that idea in his new book. It explores how cultural products from The Hunger Games to "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" to The Avengers shape and shift broader cultural attitudes.

"I'm not looking at partisanship or ideology," Gierzynski explains. "I'm looking at other beliefs and attitudes that inform partisanship and ideology, or inform participation or involvement in politics."

Gierzynski adds that the influence of "House of Cards" or The Hobbit is rarely obvious; it won't necessarily convert a Republican to a Democrat or vice versa. "But it's going to shift you in subtle ways that could have a big impact on your politics," he says.

Seven Days recently met with Gierzynski to talk about his new book.

SEVEN DAYS: Why hadn't political science previously looked at entertainment media as a political influence?

ANTHONY GIERZYNSKI: The attitude of a lot of the social sciences was that people wouldn't be influenced by the politics of entertainment because of either self-selection or because they're not gonna take any lessons from entertainment seriously. And both of those [assumptions] are so far off, when you really think about it.

SD: How so?

AG: How many people actually select their entertainment based upon the political values of the entertainment? For example, in the chapter on "Game of Thrones" and whether we think the world is just or not: You're not going in saying, "I want to watch this show because it shows the world is not just." Nobody approaches entertainment in that way.

If you think about how you select the shows you do, odds are that politics is not a part of it. Nor are you going to be completely aware of what the politics are. And sometimes they change.

SD: So, what about taking lessons from TV?

AG: We don't consciously learn everything that we actually learn. We acquire a lot of things in a more passive or indirect way. There's a great theory in psychology that argues that our state of mind when we're transported into a story is very different than when we're processing information people are trying to give us. It's called narrative transportation theory. When we leave our beliefs behind and even lose awareness of what's going on around us, we're not in the real world anymore; we're transported. Hell, movie theaters are designed to do this — sensory deprivation outside of the screen.

In that state, our cognitive energy is focused on being transported in the story. It is an emotional-based state, and it's driven by imagery. Because of that, we're more susceptible to the messages that entertainment delivers.

SD: Our guard is down, in other words.

AG: Right. We don't have the cognitive resources to be counterarguing — let alone [that] that would spoil all the fun we're having. And there is research in psychology that shows, when people are in a transported state, they're much more open to influence than when people are actually trying to persuade them.

And in the context of today, with the polarization we have, you're more likely to get past someone's partisan ideological defenses if you're telling a good story and it's not obvious that there is political content to what you're doing.

SD: "Game of Thrones" figures prominently in your research. Aside from the obvious — gratuitous violence and nudity, treachery, dragons — what did you find interesting about that show?

AG: I had watched the first season of "Game of Thrones" right up until Ned Stark's beheading; then I was like, "I'm done with this. I do not like this." But my students convinced me to go back and take another look at it. And I realized it tied into some work I had done as a grad student on attribution theory in psychology.

In that theory, there are biases in how we attribute cause and effect in society. One of the biases is a belief in a just world. And that's where "Game of Thrones" really goes against the grain. Most shows have happy endings: You do the right thing and come out on top. Not here.

So the question was, "Does this have an impact on people's belief in a just world?" We designed a survey and an experiment, and then I ran an experiment on my own. And they all add up to suggesting that, yes, watching a show like that does shift you a little bit.

SD: How does that manifest in the real world?

AG: If you think good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, then when you're confronted with problems or ills in society — homelessness, poverty, victims of crime or people who have been discriminated against — you're presented with how to address these problems. So you'll dismiss them: "They must be lazy. They must have done something wrong, so I'm not going to support the government helping them."

So it affects your support for government programs addressing problems in society. And researchers have shown a link between a belief in a just world and key attitudes on affirmative action, welfare, criminal justice, things along those lines.

SD: I have both conservative and liberal friends who really enjoy "Game of Thrones." Are they seeing the show differently?

AG: Not according to narrative transportation theory. Your conservative friends are not going to be turned into liberals, but the evidence from our studies suggests it will shift them a bit. So conservatives will start to see the world as a little less just. And with some outside reinforcement, that could lead to some weakening of the strength of their opposition to government programs.

SD: Particularly in young adult fiction, we're seeing more protagonists who are people of color or who are LGBTQ. Is that evidence of entertainment media shifting views, or is it a reflection of a changing culture?

AG: That's a key part of Harry Potter and the Millennials. Those lessons about tolerance and acceptance of diversity that are throughout the Harry Potter series, and that we found correlational evidence of, can have a big impact. Younger generations are much more tolerant — and they're not getting it from their parents, because their parents weren't more tolerant. So where are they getting it from?

Some of that [is] changes in our culture that are enhanced or transmitted by entertainment. I don't think they're getting more tolerant because of the news media, that's for sure. So that's one area where you see an important shift, and entertainment media play a big role.

SD: If entertainment media influence political perspectives, that would seem to place a lot of power in the hands of the gatekeepers. A loud criticism from conservatives is that liberal elites control Hollywood and thus the messaging. Is there actually some truth in that?

AG: A lot of what I look at is the nature of good storytelling. That's what drives people who write books and make TV shows. Bottom line: Are you telling a good story? It's inevitable that some of your values are going to be part of that. J.K. Rowling's pop up in Harry Potter, but that's not why she wrote those books.

The flip side of "Game of Thrones" and precursors like "The Wire" is that they were really going against the norm of storytelling that was accepted to that point. The most popular stories are the ones where good things happen to good people and the good guy comes out on top. No one writing those stories is doing that because they think it will make people conservative — which it does. They're doing it because people like happy endings. And if you are writing a story to change people's perspective, it will come off as ham-fisted and people will pick up on it.

We didn't laugh Wayne LaPierre off the stage when he said that the best way to beat a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Because our movies say that over and over again, even though that's not true when you look at the reality. But we learn that because guns are handy tools to resolve conflict in action films, not because Hollywood has a pro-gun message. It's more of a long-running ad for the gun industry than the gun people think it is: The only way to stay safe is to have a gun. But people don't think that they're getting that message, and nobody is intending to give you that message, either.

It's really hard for me to see how people could intentionally cause the effects that we're looking at. So the claim that liberal Hollywood is trying to mess up people — or, on the other hand, that there is some conservative commercial approach — sure, that happens from time to time, but it's not the bulk of it. You'd have to be quite aware of all the subtle ways people's minds operate to form their political views, and you'd have to be really subtle in your approach.

The Political Effects of Entertainment Media: How Fictional Worlds Affect Real World Political Perspectives by Anthony Gierzynski, Lexington Books, 248 pages. $95.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Poli Sci-Fi"