Does TV Make You Smarter?

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When Tyrion Lannister makes a scathing remark, House diagnoses a patient, Ross and Rachel argue about being on the break, and Kramer bursts through the door, is it possible you’re actually getting smarter? Television fans today have more opportunities than ever before to watch the shows of their choice – whether they’re catching the latest programs or using streaming video to binge-watch nostalgic classics.

To explore how watching TV shows affects intelligence (or how intelligence affects the TV shows people view), we analyzed the show preferences of current and former students at popular universities across the country – and compared them with schools’ median SAT scores. Put down your books and turn on your screens – here’s what the results revealed.


Top 10 Shows by State


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It turns out that some television shows are truly timeless. When it comes to current and former college students’ top TV pick, “House M.D.” dominates the country – except in California, where they prefer “Archer.”

Second place goes to “The Simpsons” across almost the entire West, except for Washington, California, and Montana. Bart and the gang are also popular in the East. But a swath of the Midwest – Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois – is partial to “Seinfeld.”

“Game of Thrones” and “Arrested Development” dominate the third-place list, along with “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.” Which other shows made the top 10? “Breaking Bad,” “Friends,” “Firefly,” “South Park,” “Dexter,” “Sherlock,” “The Sopranos,” and “House of Cards.”


Top 20 Shows Overall


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Humor reigns on the top 20 list of classic television favorites. While “House M.D.” and “The Simpsons” couldn’t be more different, they both rank at the top of the list for current and former students’ 20 favorite shows. Adult cartoons “South Park” and “Archer” also place in the top half of the list. Dramas dominate the bottom tier, with the educational miniseries “Planet Earth” coming in dead last – despite its No. 2 IMBD ranking.


Top Shows and SAT Scores


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Long-running, nostalgic favorites like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” are popular among those who attend or attended schools with higher average SAT scores, as are grown-up cartoons “South Park” and “The Simpsons.” British series “Sherlock” and “Top Gear” are also popular among high scorers, and while “Planet Earth” may not be a top choice for unwinding, high-achieving individuals like it.

On the other hand, those who appreciate dramas – such as “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” and “Band of Brothers” – go or went to schools whose students scored lower on SATs. Do the complicated storylines and serious themes take up too much brain space? Or can we chalk up the results to the fact that humor really does make you smarter?


Top Shows and SATs: Math vs. Critical Reading


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Fans of TV classics “Last Week Tonight,” “Sherlock,” “South Park,” and “Planet Earth” have a tendency to have scored higher on the math section of the SATs. Should we chalk it up to good genes? Not likely. As recent research shows, math skills are due more to hard work and strong study skills than to any inherent ability.

On the critical reading section of the SATs, “House M.D.” fans came out on top, followed by those who like “Planet Earth,” “Last Week Tonight,” and “Arrested Development.” An educational series, a talk and satirical news show, a sitcom … it appears those with strong language skills have varied taste when it comes to TV.


SAT Scores of Comedy and Drama Lovers


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It’s the ultimate showdown in smarts: We compared the average SAT scores of fans of TV dramas and comedies to see who tends to score higher or lower than average. Interestingly, 75 percent of comedy lovers achieve above-average scores – but only 36 percent of drama fans can say the same.

Why? Perhaps a good laugh serves to loosen up nervous test takers. Or maybe the studies that closely link a sense of humor and and intelligence are right on the money. However, the results don’t hold true across the board. People who enjoy the comedies “Arrested Development” and “Archer” actually averaged SAT scores on the low side. And fans of the dramas “House of Cards,” “Firefly,” “Planet Earth,” and “Sherlock” tended to achieve higher than typical scores.


Top Shows at High and Low-Scoring Schools


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Setting aside “House M.D.” since it was the most-liked show for nearly all universities, we took a look at how SAT scores correlated with current and former students’ favorite shows. Overall, those who watch “Arrested Development” and “Seinfeld” attend or attended schools whose students scored higher than those who tune in to “The Simpsons.”

However, University of Michigan – where “The Simpsons” rules – claims top spot for SAT scores. “Arrested Development” fans from University of Virginia come in second, and “Seinfeld” lovers at University of Illinois and University of Maryland sit at third and fourth.

Lowest SAT scores go to “Arrested Development” fans from Rutgers University, followed by “The Simpsons” aficionados from West Dakota University and South Dakota University, and then “Game of Thrones” fans from University of Rhode Island.


Screen-Time Smarts

While well-meaning adults over the years may have told you to turn off that TV and use your brain, that advice wasn’t necessarily warranted. Current and former students from top universities across the country enjoy watching TV – from nostalgic programs of yesteryear to today’s latest favorites. And based on our results, it’s not hurting their intelligence at all.

The next time you need a break, don’t feel guilty picking up the remote and putting on your favorite show. Want to really boost your brainpower? Consider a comedy, British series, or adult cartoon.


Methodology

We compared state flagship universities’ median SAT scores (from the Institute of Education Sciences for freshmen entering in 2014) with the the number of people who attended the university and “liked” a particular show on Facebook. We limited the shows by focusing on those with at least 10,000 fan votes and a rating of 8.8 or above on IMDB. We then pulled the number of people who liked these shows on Facebook and claimed to attend or previously attended one of the flagship universities.

When comparing SAT scores with the liked television shows, we looked at the average rank of the show in relation to the other shows for the school. We then looked at the average median SAT score when a school liked a show more than average.

Sources

Fair Use

DIRECTV grants permission to journalists and other media outlets to use the images and information on this page (for noncommercial purposes only). When doing so, credit the authors by providing a link to this page. The findings of our survey are not scientific and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of AT&T or DIRECTV.