Heisenberg’s Television Principle

The Associated Press reported today that a new type of methamphetamine from Mexico is flooding the US. It is said to be “of the purest quality” and coming from “high-tech labs”. Furthermore, it has “a clearer, glassier appearance, usually with a clear or bluish-white color”. Bluish-white color? Hang on a minute…

The HuffPost has already sniffed the connection: it’s a bewildering idea, that some Cartel drug lord might be trying to play Heisenberg, the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-artist from the fantastic TV series Breaking Bad. Someone was already selling ‘blue meth’, but it was just sugar crystals from a particularly avant-garde Albuquerque candy shop.

There’s a running debate on how TV and especially reality TV is affecting, well, reality. For example, on how series like Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant are influencing the behavior of young girls. Regardless of how pregnancy and its consequences are depicted in these shows, the mere exposure and the power of social norms might have a stronger impact on viewers than the producers would expect.

Social norms can be used very effectively as an incentive toward desirable behavior. Consider the message you find in hotel bathrooms that tries to persuade you to reuse your towels. A study has found that people are 26 percent more likely to do so when the message states that most hotel guests reuse their towels at least once, as opposed to a general plea to consider the environment. Obama’s advisors used a similar tactic to entice voters to go to the polls in 2008, by spreading the word that a record voter-turnout was expected and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (turnout increased by 5 million in the 2008 elections). You generally tend to do what others are doing. You don’t want to be the odd one out.

Similarly, if you tell a teenage girl that she shouldn’t get pregnant because a lot of her peers are carelessly doing so and ruining their lives, that’s probably not going to dramatically affect her decisions. Saying, however, that most girls in her school are taking precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STDs is usually much more effective. A TV show centered around pregnant young girls gives that idea an aura of ‘normality’ that might have unintended effects. The psychology involved in how television modulates people’s behavior might be more subtle than you think.

People will act inadvertently badly under the influence of fictional stories. You don’t think a cute film like Finding Nemo would cause any evil, but after its release sales of clownfish briefly exploded due to thousands of kids nagging parents to take one home. Most were treated like goldfish and put in freshwater bowls (they are marine fish that require lots of care), where they would survive only a matter of hours. Some kids even intentionally flushed them down the toilet to set them free, recreating events from the film. But no matter how heartbreaking that is, dead fish do not stack up with pregnant teenagers and metheads.

Nat Geo is currently airing a show called Doomsday Preppers, about people who believe the apocalypse is nigh and are prepping for it, generally by stacking up massive amounts of foodstuffs and guns. They each have their own impending doom scenario (economic collapse, earthquakes, polar shifts, radiation, you name it), but it’s mostly irrelevant: they just want to invest every resource they have into preparing for the worst.

It’s easy to think that these people might have been influenced by the recent flurry of post-apocalyptic movies and series. This creates a curious recurrence: preppers may have been influenced by a TV show, and they now have their own, potentially influencing others. Mostly, preppers are extreme right-wing xenophobic hoarders who come up with a bullshit excuse for the end of the world so they can cave in to their fears and isolate themselves. And buy lots of assault rifles. What’s lamentable about Doomsday Preppers is that it doesn’t do much to instill the doubt that these might be dangerous, delusional sociopaths. Or if you don’t care for that, that it’s wiser to put your money into a savings account rather than buying boatloads of food and ammo. At least, after every segment, the world-ending scenario invoked by each prepper is properly debunked, but that doesn’t do enough to sway the balance of the show. I’m afraid it might be inspiring even more xenophobic hoarding.

Breaking Bad has endless artistic merits and I love it dearly. But it’s full of elegantly designed, sticky ideas about drug trafficking. It was just a matter of time before someone tried to turn them into reality.