9 Scientific Experiments That Used '90s TV Shows to Manipulate Subjects
By Arika Okrent
If you want to know something about what makes people tick, investigate it with something people love—TV!
1. Watching food-related television increases caloric intake in restrained eaters
The Scientists: Mitsuru Shimizu and Brian Wansink in Appetite 57.3, 2011
The Show: SpongeBob SquarePants
The Conditions: One group watched SpongeBob episodes that were food related (e.g., "Chocolate with Nuts"). Other group watched non-food related episodes (e.g., "Snowball Effect"). Both groups had access to a bowl of candy.
The Result: “Restrained” eaters (those who were dieting) ate more while watching the food-related episodes, but type of show had no effect on “unrestrained” eaters.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: When SpongeBob gets hungry, there goes your diet.
2. Men, Muscles, and Machismo: The Relationship Between Television Violence Exposure and Aggression and Hostility in the Presence of Hypermasculinity
The Scientist: Erica Lee Scharrer in her dissertation; Syracuse University, 1998
The Shows: Home Improvement and Miami Vice
The Conditions: Groups watched a hypermasculine show with violence (Miami Vice) or without violence (Home Improvement).
The Result: Those who watched the violent show reported more hostile/aggressive tendencies after watching. If they already scored high measures of “hypermasculinity,” the effect was greater.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: Crockett and Tubbs can make Tim Taylor go Terminator.
3. Situation models and memory: The effects of temporal and causal information on recall sequence
The Scientists: Aaron L. Brownstein and Stephen J. Read in Memory 15.7, 2007
The Show: Cheers
The Conditions: Subjects watched episode of Cheers and then had to recall it from memory.
The Result: People remembered things according cause and effect chains rather than temporal sequence.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: Which scene did they show first? Who knows. But Diane did this because Sam did that.
4. Online cognitive engagement of boys with ADHD
The Scientists: Kristin S. Whirley, et al. in Journal of Attention Disorders 7.2, 2003
The Show: Growing Pains
The Conditions: Two groups, one with ADHD and one without, watched Growing Pains while having to press a computer key in response to a sound cue.
The Result: Reaction times showed the ADHD group got absorbed in important plot moments of the show later than the non-ADHD group.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: Growing Pains might take a little longer to suck you in if you’ve got ADHD.
5. Subliminal Motivation: A Story Revisited
The Scientists: Joel Cooper and Grant Cooper, Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32.11, 2002
The Show: The Simpsons
The Conditions: People watched an episode of The Simpsons with subliminal messages related to thirst embedded in it. The messages were verbal or pictorial.
The Result: They got thirstier.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: Got a subliminal message to send? The Simpsons can deliver it.
6. Effects of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on children's aggression with peers
The Scientists: Chris J. Boyatzis, Gina M. Matillo, and Kristen M. Nesbitt in Child Study Journal 25.1, 1995
The Show: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
The Conditions: The experimental group of kids watched an episode, the control group did not.
The Results: The kids who watched Power Rangers committed more aggressive acts during observation period.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: If you want to keep things calm, you probably don’t want to “go, go Power Rangers.”
7. Effects of repeated exposures to a single episode of the television program Blue's Clues on the viewing behaviors and comprehension of preschool children
The Scientists: Alisha M. Crawley, et al. in Journal of Educational Psychology 91.4, 1999
The Show: Blue’s Clues
The Conditions: Groups of kids watched an episode or Blue’s Clues one time, or five times over five days.
The Result: The more the kids watched the episode, the more they interacted with it and understood it.
The Oversimplified Takeway: Go ahead, watch that Blue’s Clues over and over.
8. The Television Situation Comedy and Children's Prosocial Behavior
The Scientists: Lawrence Rosenkoetter in Journal of Applied Social Psychology 29.5, 1999
The Shows: The Cosby Show and Full House
The Conditions: Kids watched an episode of The Cosby Show with a bunch of moral lessons. In another experiment, kids watched an episode of Full House with one overarching moral lesson.
The Result: Even 1st graders “get” the moral lessons of an adult sitcom like The Cosby Show. It was a little harder for them to get the one big lesson in the Full House episode. In general, kids who watch prosocial sitcoms have more prosocial behavior, especially if they understand them.
The Oversimplified Takeaway: If they can work it out on a half hour TV show, maybe your kids can too.
9. An assessment of obese and non obese girls' metabolic rate during television viewing, reading, and resting
The Scientists: Theodore Cooper, et al. in Eating Behaviors 7.2, 2006
The Shows: Full House and Wonder Years
The Conditions: One group watched an “active” show (an episode of Full House). One group watched a “passive” show (Wonder Years). Other conditions were resting without TV and reading a story.
The Result: No significant difference in metabolic rate between conditions. “Metabolic rate alone cannot account for the consistently observed relationship between television viewing and obesity.”
The Oversimplified Takeaway: Sorry, watching Full House won’t help you burn calories.