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Jan Van den Bulck was 11 years old when he watched an episode of Kojak and decided to reenact a scene by having his younger sister tie his ankles together and pretend to toss him in a cell. After all, it had worked just fine on TV.

“I broke my nose. There was blood everywhere,” he recalls. “It was a rough lesson on the distinction between the fictional and the real world.”

Today, as a professor of communication and media at LSA, he studies that distinction in his research and as faculty coordinator of the Mindless Media: Exposure and Effects Lab. Other faculty and students at LSA also study elements of how mass media, social media, and entertainment media skew our perceptions of the real world—sometimes for worse, occasionally for better. Here are a few examples.










Men are aggressive, competitive, and actively in pursuit of sex. Women are more passive and tend to be driven by emotion and commitment in romantic relationships.

You may have just recoiled while reading those stereotypes. But if you were a teen who watched reality television shows, it’s possible that you thought: Yep, that’s how it is.

L. Monique Ward, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology in LSA, was the lead author on a recent study of adolescents that found watching reality television shows such as The Bachelor was associated with a stronger belief in gender stereotypes.

“To me, it said a lot about the power of the genre,” says Ward, who points out that researchers did not see the same results in these adolescents based on their viewing of overtly scripted television programs. “We know reality shows aren’t completely authentic, but they think it is more authentic.”


Additionally, the study suggests that traditional media still have an impact. “People assume traditional media doesn’t matter anymore because of social media. No. No, no, no,” Ward emphasizes.

And that effect matters. As other studies have found, internalizing these gendered sexual scripts is linked to lower self-esteem, depression, lower academic self-efficacy, and lower sexual agency in girls. Among boys, internalizing these assumptions is associated with “a greater likelihood of accepting sexual coercion or violence against women, of engaging in unprotected sex, and of perpetrating aggression against a dating partner.”





Who wouldn’t want to be like Gwyneth Paltrow? “Gwyneth is wealthy and thin and beautiful. Her life is neutral tones,” says Ariel Hasell, assistant professor of communication and media. Many who follow her on social media might think, “So maybe if I start my day with lemon water every day, my life will be more like hers,” Hasell says.

The thing is, it doesn’t stop with lemon water. For some people who are fans of Paltrow’s aspirational lifestyle brand, Goop, the influence can extend to unproven health practices, cleanses, jade eggs that once purported medical benefits that we don’t really need to get into here, and other areas of well-being.

Hasell has also studied the political influence of lifestyle influencers, especially those on social media. While most people do not use social media primarily for political purposes, political messages come through. Once you trust an influencer’s views in one area, you may trust their messages on vaccines or conspiracy theories. They also know how to use social media algorithms to their advantage.

“We’re in a very low-trust media environment,” says Hasell. “If you’re an influencer, you can say, ‘I found a secret—here’s what your doctor won’t tell you.’ That’s going to get a lot more views than if they said, ‘You should really talk to your doctor about this.’”

Hasell’s research suggests aspirational social media figures “have the potential to be highly influential opinion leaders” and can impact people’s political thinking, even if their content isn’t explicitly political.

“They are seen as authentic, and that could play a role in the current zeitgeist,” she says, referencing widespread anti-expert and anti-institution feelings in the United States.





In the era of three channels on TV and one movie at the downtown theater, people had few options for the kind of entertainment they could experience. Today, with all-but-infinite entertainment options, more diverse representation of minoritized people is possible than the often narrow and stereotypical portrayals of the past. Some have theorized that the diverse representation could be a tool for reducing harmful stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.

Sonya Dal Cin, professor of communication and media, and Matea Mustafaj, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the same department, decided to test that theory in a world where we have so much entertainment to choose from. Focusing on the stereotype that men possess greater cognitive abilities than women, they created several television show descriptions across different genres, half featuring a character who was brilliant, and half featuring a character who was not exceptionally intelligent. 

They measured participants’ existing intelligence-related gender stereotypes, and then asked participants to complete a task in which they selected the shows they’d most like to watch from a few of these descriptions at a time. For each selection, participants saw shows with either all brilliant or all non-brilliant protagonists, half of which were women and half of which were men.

“Our main finding was pretty straightforward: The more that participants associated men with these high-level cognitive abilities compared to women, the less likely they were to choose a show description that featured a genius woman versus one that featured a genius man,” Mustafaj says.


One takeaway is that people who could benefit most from non-stereotypical representations are less likely to be exposed to them because of the programs they are inclined to select. Still, because there are so many factors that go into media selection, there’s a chance that entertainment media can disrupt stereotypes. If a person who holds a preconceived stereotype of men being smarter than women chooses to watch a movie like Hidden Figures because they are interested in the history of the space race, they will be exposed to characters who don’t fit the stereotype, Mustafaj says.





Van den Bulck, the Kojak reenactor from the start of the story, has conducted an experiment with students in which he brings a deactivated defibrillator into the classroom and asks for two student volunteers. Two students who have never used a defibrillator, to be precise.

Invariably, the stand-in EMT holds the paddles, yells “Clear!”, and places the paddles on the other person’s chest. The faux patient curves their chest outward and is brought back to life. They’ve done it just as they’ve seen it on TV and in movies, from ER to House to Mission: Impossible to Casino Royale. And it’s exactly … wrong.

“On one level they know they’re getting this from fiction. On another level they think they’re getting something from the real world,” says Van den Bulck, who once trained as an EMT.

In his classes and the Mindless Media: Exposure and Effects Lab, Van den Bulck looks at the unintentional impacts of media on our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behavior. How much TV do you usually watch? How often do you pull out your phone to check your social media? “This is impulsive behavior we don’t really think about a lot of the time,” he says. The lab also looks at the social construction of reality through media—what it would be like to go to prison, for instance, or to use a defibrillator, based on what you’ve seen in the media. And how does all of this affect your behavior and sleep, for instance?

“One thing I want to emphasize is that, when we think about media effects, we think it has to be negative,” he says. “That doesn’t have to be true.” An LGBTQ+ teen in a small town may feel understood for the first time when they watch a TV show with characters who are LGBTQ+. And media can serve as a mood enhancer when someone wants to relax.

“The more important thing,” he says, “is just to be aware that we are being mindless, and the fact that our mind is open for little influences when we aren’t fully paying attention.”


Learn about supporting the Department of Communication and Media

Illustrations by Matt Vierling
Kojak: Moviestore Collection Ltd./Alamy
Paltrow photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Alamy
©Levantine Films/Entertainment Pictures/



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A scholarship made Alison’s dream of attending Michigan a reality. Now, as an LSA sociology major, she is turning her passion for serving others into action for a better community.

Your annual fund gift to LSA changes the lives of students like Alison so they can make a difference in the world.

Release Date: 05/08/2024
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; Psychology; LSA Magazine; Communication and Media; Social Sciences; Katie Vloet