Study finds evidence that films can activate authoritarian tendencies

People are more likely to endorse authoritarian values after watching the movie 300, according to new findings published in the journal American Politics Research.

The study, conducted by Jeffrey M. Glas of the University of Georgia and J. Benjamin Taylor of University of North Carolina, suggests that popular films can influence political attitudes.

“There are two basic reasons this topic appeals to us. First, we are film and television junkies. In fact, this project began as an off-handed conversation in a hotel room watching 300 on television while we attended the Georgia Political Science Association conference in graduate school,” Taylor explained to PsyPost.

“With both of us having seen the film, we discussed how much we enjoyed it, but could not overlook the clear themes of authoritarianism throughout the whole picture. As we discussed 300, we talked about other films that demonstrate opposite themes – such as V for Vendetta – which then lead to considerations about the possible effects watching films like these might have on their audience.”

“Secondly, our interest stems from our knowledge and understanding of the literature surrounding authoritarianism,” Taylor continued. “There is excellent work on this topic in both political science and social psychology, but we had not seen anyone connect this disposition with entertainment media the way we thought we could – and do – in this paper. Our understanding of authoritarianism has become much more nuanced in the last decade, so we thought our theory was compelling. It just needed to be tested.”

For their study, Glas and Taylor had 291 university students watch either 300, V for Vendetta, or 21 Jump Street before completing a survey on authoritarianism. (21 Jump Street was used as the control condition.)

The survey asked participants which qualities they found most important for children to have: independence or respect for elders, obedience or self-reliance, curiosity or good manners, and being considerate or well behaved. It also questioned the participants regarding their attitudes toward the United States, protests, immigration, and requiring military service as a precondition for citizenship.

The students who watched 300 were more likely to endorse authoritarian views, the researchers found, while the opposite was true of students who watched V for Vendetta.

“As we demonstrate, films have the capacity to affect latent personality dispositions, which then affect opinions on crucial issues,” Taylor told PsyPost. “The main thing anyone might take from this is that, as a good practice, we should always be prepared to think critically about the messages we get in media.”

“This is particularly the case with entertainment media because we engage with these films and television shows in a relatively passive way, which is to say we do not have our normal psychological defenses up as we might with news media.”

However, the research has some limitations.

“The first caveat is that our findings are specific to the films we use in this experiment (i.e., 300, V for Vendetta, and 21 Jump Street),” Taylor said. “We believe the factors in these films that produce the results we find are generally found in other films as well, so we feel comfortable with the generalizability. However, more research and replication is always in order.”

“Secondly, we did not test for a decay effect. We do not know how long these effects last.

“Finally, we do not know what the impact of a film’s “entertainment value” is,” Taylor added. “Are more entertaining films more likely to elicit these responses than films that are boring? What other latent personality dispositions can be activated by films and television programs? These are questions that we are considering for our future research on entertainment media.”

The study was titled: “The Silver Screen and Authoritarianism: How Popular Films Activate Latent Personality Dispositions and Affect American Political Attitudes“.