When I was a child, I was generally ‘discouraged’ from watching ITV. In our house, the BBC ruled and my parents still rarely vary from BBC One or Two with catch-up television regarded as something akin to witchcraft.
It wasn’t actually definitively banned, I remember catching the odd episode of Supergran, but mostly I watched the children’s programmes broadcast in the after-school slot on BBC One.
Friends and family of a similar age (obviously not anyone who actually lived in my house) find this fascinating and regularly taunt me with tales of such exotic-sounding shows as Nightmare or Fun House. Of course, I have no idea what they are talking about. My friend Jenny is even further out of the loop - she didn’t have a TV at all, growing up. She might as well have been living in a different country, so lacking is her knowledge of British 1980s and 90s culture. Any reference to the Broom Cupboard or Gordon the Gopher and she gets a glazed look and goes off to make a cup of tea.
It turns out that both Jenny and I are suffering from a very specific form of psychological torture. Scientists have this week discovered that being reminded that you are out of the loop when it comes to social and popular culture references results in a noticable drop in mood. So when Jenny goes off to make her tea, she is not just bored by our chat - she is probably feeling quite sad. Poor Jenny.
Researcher Nicole Iannone at Radford University in the US found that being out of the loop when it came to popular culture was a “form of partial ostracism”. What’s more, reminders that you do not know what is going on in everyday cultural life can elicit “negative psychological consequences”, she said. In short, if you don’t know what a Kardashian is, or you can’t lip-sync the lyrics to the latest Dua Lipa song, you’re nothing.
In one study, participants were told that the pictures they were viewing were of well-known faces who most people taking part in the experiment had recognised. Many were A-list celebs, such as Justin Bieber - however, some were lesser-known names. Being told, essentially, that if they did not know the celebrities, they were outwith the norm, had an adverse effect on the person, leading to an increase in negative mood.
What’s more, the participant’s self-rating of their cultural knowledge made no difference; someone who believed themselves to be well-informed when it comes to music, TV and other celebrity culture was as devastated to find that other people knew something they did not, as the person who accepted they were not as up-to-date as their peers. As a teenager, I had a friend who admitted (not widely, or there would be no point in doing what he was doing) that he treated popular culture as an academic subject. When he had time, he listened to local radio stations and noted down names of singers and the songs in the Top Ten that week. He picked up his sister’s Smash Hits magazines and tried to memorise who was famous and for what, in case it came up in conversation at school. This was, of course, before the days of the internet. His research would be a lot easier now.
He wasn’t autistic, or even socially awkward in any way, he was just very, very busy (his activities ranged from captaining the school rugby team to playing chess for Britain while scoring dozens of top exam grades in between - yes, somehow we all still liked him) and he didn’t have a natural interest in this kind of stuff. Yet, he clearly realised what these researchers have just published - that keeping tabs on popular culture is always a significant factor in feeling like you belong, whether you like it or not.
Of course, not everyone wants to make the effort to blend in. While covering the Brit Awards for work a couple of months ago, I was only a little surprised to learn that I had heard of almost none of the nominees. Of course, now I have been lucky enough to come across this little slice of pop culture through the course of my profession I am mildly proud to say I could probably recognise Stormzy, was I ever to come across a picture of him again, while if I hear the words “Dua Lipa” spoken on the radio, I now know they are not talking about some kind of cosmetic. I wouldn’t say, however, that even though some of my younger colleagues mocked me for my lack of knowledge, that I felt any kind of “negative mood”.
What we have to remember is that all of the participants in the psychological study were university-aged students. First years, in fact - many of whom would have a burning desire to fit in, to blend with the crowd in hope of making new friends. Yet when you get to my age (coming towards the end of my fourth decade of life), there is more of a take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Perhaps these Radford University researchers have hit the nail on the head - this negative feeling only applies to young people trying to find their place in the world - and their social circle.
Older people, however, perhaps stop following popular culture once they have done so - I would estimate at around the age of 22 or so. It would explain why people of my parents’ generation positively revel in the fact that they have not listened to a single new piece of music since 1965 - and why 90 per cent of my regularly-listened-to CD collection (yes, I still boast a wall-full of CDs in my living room) is made up of the White Stripes, Nirvana and Travis. Accepted pop culture stagnation. There has to be some benefit to growing old.