Limited Capacity Model and the Cognitive Processing of Television Shows

I’ve been feeling like a paper mill lately. The summer classes I took seemed pretty heavy on the written word (the sunshine is no guarantee of reprieve). Here’s the paper I wrote for the Psychology of Media course.

Overview: In Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that television is making people smarter. He bases his claim on two factors: 1) present-day viewers prefer complex and fast-paced television, with more characters and narrative threads, and 2) he makes the general observation that IQ scores are increasing. Despite Johnson’s well-intentioned effort, certain questions remain. In particular, how can we be sure that the human cognitive system is able to fully process this more complex popular culture? Although 24 is undoubtedly more complex than Dallas, how can we be sure that consumers are fully “getting-it?? To begin to answer this question, I will perform an analysis of two television shows created approximately 30 years apart, 24 and Starsky and Hutch. To analyze these television shows, I will employ the Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing. I believe that this model not only provides a fecund framework for understanding television message processing, but it also raises some questions regarding Johnson’s claims. I hope to answer the following question: are we able to process more complex media today than we were 30 years ago (hence concluding that we are smarter), or has our culture and tastes simply changed, leading us to simply misunderstand more of what we are watching.

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

— Steven Johnson, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter? (2005)

In Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that processing today’s complex popular culture is leading to cognitive benefits for its consumers. He substantiates this claim in both a quantitative and qualitative way. In his quantitative substantiation he uses IQ scores, noting that IQ scores are growing from one generation to the next (also known as the Flynn effect). He remarks that those aspects which are least dependent on formal education, such as ability to see patterns and complete sequences (the g score on IQ tests), are escalating faster than other aspects tested with IQ assessments. He concludes that “improved education cannot be responsible for the Flynn Effect?, but rather when “you spend your leisure time interacting with media and technology that forces you to ‘fill in’ and ‘learn forward,’ you’re developing skills that will ultimately translate into higher g scores.? (144, 149). The second metric he uses is a more qualitative one, or more precisely, the boredom factor. He notes the ways in which older television would bore today’s consumers:

The modern viewer who watches a show like ”Dallas” today will be bored by the content — not just because the show is less salacious than today’s soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but also because the show contains far less information in each scene, despite the fact that its soap-opera structure made it one of the most complicated narratives on television in its prime. With ”Dallas,” the modern viewer doesn’t have to think to make sense of what’s going on, and not having to think is boring. Many recent hit shows — ”24,” ”Survivor,” ”The Sopranos,” ”Alias,” ”Lost,” ”The Simpsons,” ”E.R.” -take the opposite approach, layering each scene with a thick network of affiliations. You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you’re exercising the parts of your brain that map social networking information, that connect multiple narrative threads. (“Watching TV makes You Smarter?)

Hence, Johnson claims that television is making people smarter are based on two observations: 1) present-day viewers prefer fast-paced television, with more characters and narrative threads, and 2) the general observation that IQ scores are increasing. Despite Johnson’s well-intentioned effort, certain questions remain. In particular, how can we be sure that the human cognitive system is able to fully process this more complex popular culture? Although 24 is undoubtedly more complex than Dallas, how can we be sure that consumers are fully “getting-it?? To begin to answer this question, I will perform an analysis of two television shows created approximately 30 years apart, 24 and Starsky and Hutch. To analyze these television shows, I will employ the Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing. I believe that this model not only provides a fecund framework for understanding television message processing, but it also raises some questions regarding Johnson’s claims. As data for my experiment, I will use a set of summarizations that I created for each episode which I completed before undertaking this analysis. These summarizations should represent an honest representation of my ability to summarize each episode. Using re-viewings of the episodes and my own summarizations, I will I will discuss the ways in which these television shows task the human cognitive processing system. I hope to answer the following question: are we able to process more complex media today than we were 30 years ago (hence concluding that we are smarter), or has our culture and tastes simply changed, leading us to simply misunderstand more of what we are watching.

To understand the difference between processing Starsky and Hutch versus 24, the body of theory connected with the Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing will be introduced. According to Annie Lang (2000), the basic components of message processing “are to perceive stimuli, turn them into mental representations, do mental work on those representations, and reproduce them in the same or in an altered form? (47). What is particularly relevant about Lang’s model is the idea that the mental resources are limited, meaning that you “can think about one thing, or two, or maybe seven, at the same time, but eventually all your resources are being used, and the system cannot think yet another thing without letting a previous thought go? (47). Since there is a limited pool of resources, certain aspects are included in the mental representation whereas others are not. Lang reports that a viewer’s mental representation is hence idiosyncratic and “contains only a small fraction of the total information contained in the original message? (49). What gets retained is subject-dependent. She notes that two types of information are most likely to get encoded in working memory: a) information relevant to the individual’s goals, and b) unexpected information or a change in environment (52).

Lang’s Limited Capacity model has some important research implications. Particularly, it provides a framework for understanding the ways in which certain bits of information are not encoded into memory or easily forgotten by a television viewer. It also allows one to investigate the extremes, or more precisely, the ways that a viewer gets overloaded with information. Related studies have begun to look at the thresholds of information comprehension. For example, Lang cites a study by Reeves, Thorson, & Schleuder (1986) that finds that:

“… by and large, that increasing structural complexity decreased recognition memory for messages globally. However, they also reported that points in complex messages that were not themselves complex were recognized better than complex parts of the messages? (59).

Hence, Lang’s theory prompts the following question: although television programming is more complex, are we able to comprehend the overall message? Or do we miss aspects of the overall message, yet continue viewing because we understand some subset of the points within the meta-message?

In comparing my summaries of Starsky and Hutch (S&H) versus 24, the most noticeable trend is that the summary for S&H is much longer than the summary for 24 (387 words versus 270 words). Although S&H runs somewhat longer chronologically than 24 (49 minutes versus 40 minutes—there are evidently more commercials today), this still doesn’t account for the discrepancy. Why might this be the case? Reflecting on my summarization practice, there are some interesting trends which may shed light on this phenomenon. First, however, I should note my summarization methodology. I played the television program on my laptop in one window, and then took notes of the episode in my word processor in a separate window. I occasionally paused the video player to complete a sentence if I thought the episode was progressing faster than I could type. I did not make amendments to the summary after the completion of the episode. Upon looking at the summaries and the reviewing the episodes again, there are some general trends. In 24, there are entire scenes that were not added to the summary. For example, the opening sequence of 24, where a woman parachutes into the Mojave desert, is completely omitted from the summary? Why? The Limited Capacity model may shed some light on this omission. First, in watching the television program, the viewer (myself in this case) is attempting to create a mental representation of the story. The quick change of scene (from the desert to the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angles) makes the creation of a mental representation of the character’s actions within a physical setting difficult to construct. The quick transition between different physical settings makes it difficult to create a coherent sense of space. Additionally, without the woman providing any dialogue, which would include her intentions or any other identifying information, it is impossible to integrate her into the larger narrative that immediately follows in the next scene, where Keifer Sutherland’s character (Jack) is introduced. Perhaps I will remember this scene when we return to the desert? Or perhaps it will simply be forgotten about. This scene is somewhat of a “throw-away? scene; it did not make it to the summary because it has not yet been integrated into the larger narrative. This practice of omitting scenes because it is not yet understood within the larger narrative structure is a common occurrence when attempting to summarize 24. This is the likely cause for having produced a shorter summary for 24 as compared to S&H.

The ability to create a mental representation, especially with respect to physical space, is a far easier task with S&H. The entire episode is confined to a single city, unlike 24, where the viewer is not always clear where the action is taking place. The ability to create a map of social relationships is also far easier in S&H. The social structures are clearly delineated by the speech, clothes and actions of the characters. For example, Starsky and Hutch are clearly police officers (the good guys), with a single boss (the Police chief), and a series of criminals (with varying degrees of badness) in which they are bringing to justice. The social structure is not so clear in 24. All though many characters are law enforcement officers, there are clearly some whose intentions are malicious and who are acting against the law. It is also never quite clear who is lawful and who is a criminal. For example, the female law enforcement officer, who was portrayed early-on as Jack’s friend, is later suggested to be involved in the conspiracy to kill the Presidential nominee (although it is unclear if she is truly involved). Hence, one’s ability to create a mental representation of 24 is difficult: the physical space is continually shifting, new characters are being constantly introduced, and the interrelations are intentionally convoluted.

A noteworthy aspect of Lang’s Limited Capacity Model is the notion that certain aspects are more likely to be encoded into working memory based on goals of the individual viewer (52). Do the summarizations of the episodes support this view? It is clear from the 24 summary that certain aspects were afforded more attention and more actively integrated into the mental representation. For example, attention to the kidnapping of Jack’s daughter was given high predominance even though it was only one of the many sub-plots (9 lines out of a total of 26 lines, or 34.6% of the total summary). My choice to more fully integrate this subplot was likely an idiosyncratic reflection of my self: I felt heightened concern for the daughter and unintentionally decided to more thoroughly store that aspect of the narrative. This corresponds with the concept that emotion-eliciting stimuli may be more memorable, with Lang noting “emotion-eliciting stimuli may cause the automatic allocation of additional processing resources to storage? (54). The same phenomenon does not as actively reflect itself in the S&H summary. Because the narrative is linear and simple, and the flow is slow enough, all aspects can be included in the summary. The narrative exhibits a certain flatness because nearly no decisions must be made, intentionally or unintentionally, as to which aspects will be stored in memory. All viewers are likely to report the same narrative structure because comprehending the messages conveyed does not significantly tax the human cognitive system. Because of this lack of challenge, the idiosyncratic aspects of memory storage and retrieval and not as actively represented.

In observing the ways in which certain aspects of the narrative gets stored (such as the kidnapping of the daughter), versus other aspects which are neglected, Lang’s discussion of the orienting response is particularly relevant. The orienting response “is an automatic (some say reflexive) physiological and behavioral response that occurs in response to novel or signal stimuli…. When an orienting response occurs, the viewer orients his or her sensory receptors toward the stimulus that caused the response, and an organized set of physiological responses accompanies this behavior? (52). Hence, the “orienting response causes an automatic allocation of processing resources to the task of encoding the stimulus that elicited the orienting response? (52). Lang notes that this is particularly relevant for how one approaches televised media. For example, she notes that a student who will be tested on an educational video versus a student who is watching the same video for entertainment value may process the video differently. She finds that the student watching the video for entertainment value may comprehend it better:

…a person watching a television message on which he or she expects to be tested… may make a serious attempt to allocate resources to storage so as to be able to pass the test. In this case, the calls for attention made by structural features may actually interfere with the process of storage because they may “steal? resources from storage in order to allocate them to encoding. In addition, this viewer is likely to allocate a fair number of resources to retrieving what he or she already knows about this topic from long-term memory in order to integrate new knowledge with old knowledge. This viewer is much more likely to run into a resource-limited situation than the person watching to be entertained, since this viewer is purposely allocating resources to storage and retrieval in order to learn and retain the content of the message. (53)

Hence, our orientation must be considered when observing the ways in which one responds to televised messages. I noticed that with my summarization of 24, I attempted to create a holistic overview of the events as the story progressed. This is the type of information one would report if asked by a friend what happened in the story. However, since many scenes are only integrated into the larger narrative only later in the episode, the early scenes were viewed as extraneous and omitted from the summary. This directly relates to the Lang’s discussion of orienting response, where I was acting more as the tested subjected rather than as a subject looking to be entertained. As a subject looking to be tested, I spent a good-deal of resources to “integrate new knowledge with old knowledge? and fixating on the events that were currently unfolding (encoding) (53). However, I think I would have created a better summary if I acted as the entertained subject, where a more fluid allocation of encoding, storage and retrieval resources were allowed. Because of my attempts to create a meta-narrative (the overall story) from the onset, I think that the summary generated was less than optimal.

As mentioned earlier, the aspects that viewers choose to store either are a) relevant to their goals or needs, or b) is information that represents change or an unexpected occurrence in the environment (49). Although (a) is individual dependent, (b) is “likely to be the same across individuals with a culture? (49). With regards to those aspects that are stable across a culture, cuts and edits of the televised sequences are particularly important. Lang finds that:

“… edits (ie, related cuts) do not increase cognitive load (much), but do increase the allocation of resources to encoding, so that recognition memory increases. On the other hand, cuts (ie, unrelated cuts) increase cognitive load in addition to increasing the resources allocated to encoding. The increase in resources allocated to encoding doesn’t generally keep up with the increase in processing load, and recognition memory decreases. (59).

This finding means that “increasing the number of cuts increases the processing load, which overloads the system, which in turn results in a decrease in overall recognition memory, despite the increase in resources allocated to the task? (59). Hence, making too many cuts may overload one’s ability to process the sequence. Does this occur with any of the television shows viewed? This is not a problem with Starsky and Hutch because the number of cuts occurs less frequently than in 24. However, 24 uses cuts extensively, sometimes cutting to scenes where more than one event is occurring within the picture frame. There are I believe some sequences that do seriously challenge one’s ability to fully recall the events. For example, the opening sequence shows a woman parachuting. As soon as the viewer is able to comprehend that this is indeed the event that is transpiring, the scene cuts to the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angles, where the viewer is instantly introduced to a large office of characters. Because the names are thrown out so quickly, and the edits within the scene are so fast, one is lucky if he gets the overall “gist? of events. It is unlikely that the viewer will be able to encode, store, and retrieve all the characters and dialogue that transpires. As soon as the viewer may get a handle on the landscape of the office environment, the episode cuts to another scene. When the episode returns to the office, perhaps the viewer will be able to augment his mental representation of the social relationships and setting. Hence, it is clear from 24 that cuts, even more so than edits, have an impact on one’s ability to cognitively process it. There are indeed certain points where cuts lead to cognitive overload where the viewer feels like they are lost in a sea of characters, dialogue, and events.

The ability to fully store and retrieve S&H, versus one’s ability to only partially and idiosyncratically store and retrieve 24, illustrates the central stance of the Limited Capacity Model: that one’s ability to process a message is cognitively limited. Lang notes that there are two primary reasons why a message will not be fully processed:

  1. “the message recipient may choose to allocate fewer resources to the task then it requires?
  2. “the message may require more resources than the message recipient has available to allocate to the task? (50-51)

Hence, it would seem that S&H underutilizes the human cognitive system. Even with me taking notes while the story progressed, this presented no challenge to my cognitive capabilities. However, with 24, I found myself unable to fully comprehend the events that transpired. Because I was writing my summary as I watched and my own cognitive resources are limited, I was undoubtedly employing some of my cognitive resources which may have been better utilized if they were allocated to comprehending the narrative. An interesting research project would hence look at the difference between viewers who fully concentrate on a complex narrative like 24 versus those who spread their attention across summary writing and narrative comprehension. If Limited Capacity Model is correct, one would expect that the summaries written for those who concentrated solely on understanding the narrative would be superior versus those who divided their cognitive resources across tasks. 24 is the type of narrative that requires one’s full attention.

After analyzing the ways in which S&H and 24 could be cognitively processing using the Limited Capacity Model, what does this analysis reveal about Johnson’s claims? First, it asserts that cognitive resources are limited. This means that television viewers, although they may enjoy complex dramas, may not fully understand all the events and social relationships that transpire. Rather, an excess of scene cuts (as seen in 24) may be a sure way to lead to cognitive overload. However, cognitive overload may be what television producers are looking for. Johnson makes the observation that complex television leads to much higher DVD sales than less-complex television. Shows that can “sustain five viewings without becoming tedious?, such as 24, are more likely to become part of someone’s home DVD collection (159). The DVD sales phenomenon corresponds with Lang’s notion that memory storage is idiosyncratic, meaning that someone could repeatedly view a television show and choose to store different aspects on each occasion (and create a more refined mental representation). However, does this answer our initial question of whether people are smarter today than they were 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain with the existing data. I however remain skeptical. It is unclear that watching more complex television, as much as it may challenge existing faculties, can actually enhance one’s cognitive capabilities.

Bryant, Jennigs & Dolf Zillman (2002). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, New Jersey: Erlbaum.
Harris, Richard J. (2004), A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication. (Fourth Edition), New Jersey: Erlbaum.
Johnson, Steven (2005). Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, New York: Riverhead.
–. (April 24, 2005). “Watching TV Makes You Smarter?. The New York Times.
Lang, Annie (2000). The Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing. Journal of Communication, n 4, 46-70.

Summary from 24 episode
A threat against a presidential candidate has been made. Jack (Keifer Sutherland) is federal law enforcement agent looking to protect the presidential candidate. Jack’s daughter is missing. She is out partying with some people who will not let her go. Her friend is passed out. Richard (another federal agent) is with another agent who gets killed. There is some type of conspiracy within the agency. Richard calls John and John goes to Richard. A plane crashes. The presidential candidate is worried about the threat. Someone within the agency seems to be plotting against the agency (a conspiracy). A man (who has received plastic surgery) and a woman are involved in the conspiracy to kill the presidential candidate. Jack and other agent are being hunted by the conspirators. Jack kills one of the conspirators and takes off his finger. The group trying to kill the presidential nominee are looking for some kind of ID. Jack and his wife are worried about their daughter. Secret service come in and are looking for the senator (the presidential candidate). He escapes down the back stairwell. The other agent with Jack (Richard) is killed. Richard gives Jack an ID card. Richard is killed, Jack drives off. Jack’s daughter and friend are taken to an abandoned space. Jack’s daughter is forced to call her mother and tell her she is OK. One of the guys holding the girls hit’s Jack’s daughter’s friend. Jack’s daughter makes the call- tells her mother that she loves her- the mother is worried because the daughter never says that. The ID card is scanned- it is Nina’s card (Jack’s agent friend).

Summary from Starsky and Hutch episode
Starky and Hutch are driving around town, unhappy to we working on a Sunday. Two thieves are having lunch in a diner; they want to steal a white car because it is typical looking. The two older people driving the car come into the diner. There is dynamite in the white car that is being stolen. The car is stolen by the criminals. The bomb is on a timer. Starsky and Hutch are notified about the stolen white car and start following it. The criminals get away- they decide to paint the car green and change the plates so that the police don’t find them. Starsky and Hutch interview a witness and get the plate numbers. Starsky and Hutch interview the older people who put 50 sticks of dynamite in the trunk; the bomb is set to go off at 5:00. They said they did it to get fixes to the retirement home.

Starky and Hutch play basketball with 2 guys- if S and H win, they will get information from them. If the informants win, S and H will pay $100. The informants start to loose, S and H win, and give them information on where to find the criminals. S and H find themselves at an illegal betting establishment- they get information from the owners on where they might find the criminals. They go to one of the criminal’s wife’s dance joint. The criminals, while talking to his wife, let out the air of S and H’s tires. S and H go outside and have a shootout with the criminals. They attempt to follow but they cannot follow in their car.

S and H go to mechanic’s, and find out that the car has been painted green. Information about the stolen car has been broadcasted on the radio. The car is found in a parking garage. S and H go to the parking garage. Starsky finds the green car and drives it to an abandoned field; he jumps out. The car blows up. Hutch gets in a shootout with the criminals. He shoots Wilbur. He continues shooting with Sloan. Hutch shoots Sloan. Sloan is arrested.

A councilmen comes to the retirement home. The food is bad. He promises a new food budget. Starky and Hutch give out food to the people in the retirement home.

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