The Cognitive Style of Subtitles

They boost literacy, kickstart foreign film, and improve comprehension

Clive Thompson


Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

So: Subtitles are hot now!

You likely knew this already; you may well use them yourself. But this is a big shift from TV- and movie-viewing when I was young. Back in the 80s, watching video with subtitles was considered extremely weird. People found it awkward, a type of cultural multitasking: They disliked dividing their attention between the action on-screen and the box of text at the bottom.

Things have changed decisively. These days, as a YouGov survey found, 38% of Americans watch TV with subtitles on — even when they’re viewing a program in their own language. It’s the trend of the future, too: Fully 63% of young people (aged 18 to 29) use subtitles, whereas only 29% of folks 45 to 64 do. In the years to come, I bet we’ll see clear majorities in all age groups watching video with subtitles.

There are some negative reasons propelling this trend, to be sure. While making a film or TV series, directors these days generally do fewer re-takes; if they get the visual shot they need, they might tolerate slightly muffled dialogue. Plus, as Devin Gordon explained in this Atlantic piece, directors are also more heavily relying on musical cues, which further obscures speech. The upshot is that when the firm Preply asked people why they use subtitles, many of the reasons were, basically, a defensive or adaptive behavior …

A lot of respondents said they were using subtitles because it was hard to understand on-screen action, for various reasons — like too-loud background music (78%), visuals being worse than they used to be (44%), or actors talking faster than they did in the past (35%).

Me, though, I’m a fan.

It’s partly because multimedia is my intellectual wheelhouse; I’ve been writing about the cognitive effects of digital technologies for 25 years now. From what I can tell, the effect of subtitles on our thinking — and our cultural consumption — is damn interesting!

Indeed, for a while now I’ve been collecting together research that illuminates what we could call the cognitive style of subtitles.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.