Stupidity Is Contagious

A disturbing confluence of stories can be found today on the Wall Street Journal’s “Week in Ideas” page.

Headline #1: “Stupidity is Contagious”:

College students who read a short script about a moronic soccer hooligan subsequently did worse on a test of knowledge than a control group. But the deficit disappeared if the readers were encouraged to carefully notice how they differed from the character in the story . . .

On a difficult test covering geography, science and the arts, the students who had read about Meier but not underlined how he differed from them scored from 30% to 32%, compared to about 37% for the control group and for students who distanced themselves from the character.

Meanwhile, just below that story, one finds Headline #2: “Confidence in Debt”

Young people “experience debt as empowering,” according to a study, and the effect is strongest for people who come from the poorest families.Researchers looked at the responses of 3,079 people from 1979 to 2004, in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They ranged in age from 18 to 34, although most were in their early-to-mid 20s. The survey included data about credit-card and educational debt, and measures of respondents’ self-esteem and sense of mastery.

For students from families in the bottom 25% of income, self-esteem and perceived mastery rose steadily with both educational and credit-card debt. The education itself didn’t drive the rise in self-esteem; given two people with the same demographics and schooling, the one with higher debt had higher self-regard. Similar but less-consistent effects were found for students from families in the broad middle income ranges.

Only at age 28 did educational debt (though still not credit-card debt) become a drag on self-esteem.

I’ve tried to piece these two stories together into a cohesive narrative. It goes something like this: If it’s true that educational debt loses its magical self-esteem-boosting powers at age 28, the contagion mentioned under Headline #1 must take about six years to wear off.

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