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Repeating what Jack Nicolson Told me: How Popular Movies (Briefly) Influence Our Political Views

Ever started regaling your friends with your strongly held political views only to be told you’re parroting a movie you all watched last week? Research in Social Science Quarterly has found that movies watched purely for entertainment can influence our political views for up to two weeks.

“The lack of research into how popular movies can influence political attitudes is puzzling as we know that that the potential for persuading people is highest when they are unaware that political messages are being communicated,” said Dr. Todd Adkins from the University of Notre Dame.

To test the theory the authors assigned 252 university students to watch a movie with no political message, a movie with subtle political message or a movie with a strong and explicit political message. The movies selected were The Rainmaker, where healthcare is a central part of the storyline and As Good as it Gets, where healthcare is less prominent, but still plays a role in the story. The control group watched That Thing You Do!, which has nothing to do with healthcare.

Since the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 healthcare remains a dividing political issue in the US and the authors believed that the subjects watching films with pro-healthcare reform messages would become significantly more liberal on the issue. This finding would be especially compelling as 54% of the students identified themselves as conservatives or supporters of the Republican Party.

The tests revealed that not only did viewers of both As Good as it Gets and The Rainmaker become more liberal on healthcare, this change persisting for two weeks after viewing the films.

“We find significant evidence that popular films possess the capability to change attitudes on political issues,” said Adkins. “In an age where the biases of network news and talk radio programs are accepted facts, the movie theater may prove to be one of the last sources of cross-cutting exposure to political messages.”