Study Finds Historical Movies Distort Our Knowledge of History

Aug 6, 2009 at 12:38 pm
Films like Year One could make you dumb -- or dumber. -
Films like Year One could make you dumb -- or dumber.
What!? This summer's flop, Year One, was not an accurate portrayal of real historical events?!

Shocking, we know. But could it be that even some of Hollywood's more "authentic" historical films also tend to blur the facts? And could those inaccuracies affect learning?

That's what a new study from Washington University doctoral student, Andrew Butler, suggests.

The study, appearing in the forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that showing popular history movies in a classroom setting can be a double-edged sword when it comes to helping students learn and retain factual information in associated textbooks.

Butler found that when a film was consistent with information in the text, watching the film  increased correct recall by about 50 percent relative to reading the text alone. In contrast, when information in the film directly contradicted the text, people often falsely recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the time.

Cautions Butler:
"Although films may increase learning and interest in the classroom, educators should be aware that students might learn inaccurate information, too, even if the correct information has been presented in a text. More broadly, these same positive and negative effects apply to the consumption of popular history films by the general public."
What are some examples of "historical" films that skew history? Click here for a fun little slideshow of films Butler says got it wrong.