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Does watching television make people stupid? Are stupid people more likely to vote for populist parties?

A few days ago, I would have waved these questions off as ridiculous. Now, a new study suggests the answer may be “yes.”

Me @TheAtlantic


In the 1970s, Italian TV was an extremely serious affair. Only ten hours a day. Mostly serious news.

Then, Silvio Berlusconi started the country’s first private national network. And aired trashy shows like… this one.

(Pretty NFSW.)

A strange quirk in how this network was introduced allowed three economists to measure its impact.

Some regions got access to this channel later than others. Even within these regions, some villages got access later due to random geographical variations.

So how did residents of villages that had early access to entertainment TV differ from residents of villages that didn’t?

For one, they were more stupid:

• They did worse at literacy and numeracy tests.
• They were more likely to be exempt from the army because of low IQ.
For another, Italians who had earlier access to entertainment TV were much more likely to vote for Silvio Berlusconi when he first ran for office in 1994.

Amazingly, this effect lasted through the 1990s and 2000s.
The authors posit two causal pathways for this effect:

Among older Italians, loyal viewers of @mediaset were more likely to be exposed to pro-Berlusconi propaganda.

Among younger Italians, TV lowered cognitive standards, making voters more receptive to populist messaging.
But perhaps the most striking finding in the study is that exposure to entertainment TV in the 1980s did not just increase the vote for Berlusconi in the 1990s; it also increased the vote for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in the 2010s.
This is a very interesting empirical validation of the coherence of “populism.”

Grillo and Berlusconi have little in common.

Ideologically, Grillo has his roots on the left, Berlusconi on the right. Politically, Grillo rose to prominence by attacking Berlusconi.
So what’s the best explanation for why entertainment TV had the same impact on vote share for Berlusconi and Grillo?

The populist political style they share—claiming that they alone can defend the people against a corrupt elite—makes them attractive to a similar set of voters.
Do I believe these striking results?

I’m torn. The study's methodology is very impressive.

But the more counterintuitive a finding, the stronger the evidence we should require before we buying it...

...especially when the finding fits elite ideological priors quite so neatly.
In the past years, a lot of striking findings in social science have been called into doubt when people looked at the evidence more closely.

It’s possible this will happen in here, too.
So I hope that someone does the arduous work of replicating this paper, or testing it in a different case, soon.

In the meanwhile, do give it a read. Whether or not this study by Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti and Andrea Tesei ends up being right, it's hugely impressive.

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