How does the media we consume influence the way we think?

We know that the media plays a critical role in how we perceive our physical appearance. There’s no shortage of studies examining how media representations of things like diet culture, the fashion industry, and the Instagram ‘influencer’ phenomenon reinforce conventional western beauty standards. 

But what about what the media’s influence on our internal states? The behaviours, thought patterns, and habits that we form because of the media we digest? In other words, can the media that we consume – be it a film, a TV show, the local newspaper, a podcast, or a book – affect the deep-seated decisions we make? 

According to Eliana La Ferrara, Professor of Economics at Università Bocconi in Italy, the critical question is whether we, as consumers, imitate the behaviours and ideas presented to us in our chosen media formats. La Ferrara explains that the imitation of behaviours can manifest in a short-run imitation effect, i.e. immediately after an individual consumes a piece of media, or in a long-run imitation effect. The former, says La Ferrara, is simple enough to identify, but as for the documentation of long-term effects, things get a little messier, and you’d ideally need to observe someone’s behaviour in various environments and over an extended period of time to credibly estimate the type of influence that media has on them.  

To use myself as an example, I’m an avid listener of the Good Christian Fun podcast. I’m not a Christian, nor do I have any personal experience with the Evangelical culture that the hosts of the podcast were raised in, but over the years, I’ve been exposed to a number of complex discussions about faith and doubt, the relationship between purity culture and rape culture, and the Church’s approach to LGBTQI+ issues. Over time, I’ve transitioned from a passive listener to one who is deeply engaged, even if just internally, with the discourse that the show both creates and perpetuates. It didn’t happen overnight, but I’ve noticed a shift in how I view organised religion, its place in the world (particularly the U.S.), and the impact that it has on individuals and communities, all because of the new perspectives that the podcast has imparted. 

This presents a sort of chicken-egg dilemma. That is to say, what came first, the podcast or the evolved religious worldview? More often than not, the media we consume impacts us in such subtle ways as to go unnoticed. We might attribute certain views, attitudes, and behaviours that we adopt to mere independent personal growth, as though those things were always inside of us, waiting to be awakened, rather than the natural by-products of the media we consume on an ongoing basis. Human beings are like sponges; we can’t help but soak up the things which we regularly surround ourselves with. 

In saying that, we must have an internal filtration system which separates the bad from the good, which clings to some ideas and rejects others. For the most part, though, I suspect that the thoughts we think and the behaviours we emulate simply have a snowball effect: we might watch or read something as children, which then gives way to the next something as teenagers, and then as young adults, and so forth. Our lives are comprised of all of those things, those memories, those processes in motion. So much so that we might mistake them for an inherent part of our beings. 

What I do know is this: the most impactful media is the stuff that strikes a chord. Sometimes, it’s the stuff that resonates on an imperceptible level, as though it’s been living inside of you the whole time. Other times, it’s new, perhaps uncomfortably so, and you can almost feel your body changing and moulding to the information that you're absorbing in real time. It’s the stuff that makes you a more thoughtful, more curious, more earnest, open, and receptive listener. It’s the stuff that encourages you to seek out views that don’t necessarily reflect your own, or the stuff that challenges your beliefs, forcing you to examine why you ever held them to begin with. Ultimately, it’s the stuff that invites people to the table, with a sensitivity and a vulnerability, and seems to ask, ‘you too?’ 

Tagged in Opinion, mental health, Culture, What messes with your head