Why do people watch so much TV?

Honestly, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t own a TV. (With Mythbusters canceled, what’s the point anymore?)

Don’t get me wrong. I have watched (and even enjoyed) the occasional sitcom. I’ve even tried watching football. I like comedies. They’re funny. But after they end, I get that creeping feeling of emptiness inside, like when you’ve eaten a bowl of leftover Halloween candy instead of lunch. There is no “meat” to these programs–or vegan-friendly vegetable protein, if you prefer.

I do enjoy documentaries, though I often end up fast-forwarding through large chunks of them because they are full of filler shots of rotating galaxies or astronomers parking their telescopes or people… taalkiiing… sooo… sloooowwwwlllly… And sadly, if you’ve seen one documentary about ancient Egypt, you’ve seen them all.

Ultimately, time is a big factor: I am always running short. Once I’m done with the non-negotiables (like “take care of the kids” and “pay the bills,”) there’s only so much time left, and time spent watching TV is time not spent writing. Since becoming a competent writer is one of my personal goals, TV gets punted to the bottom of the list, slightly below doing the dishes.

Obviously not everyone writes, but I have a dozen other backup projects for when I’m not writing, everything from “read more books” to “volunteer” to “exercise.”

I think it is a common fallacy to default to assuming that other people are like oneself. I default to assuming that other people are time-crunched, running on 8 shots of espresso and trying to cram in a little time to read Tolstoy and get the tomatoes planted before they fall asleep. (And I’m not even one of those Type-A people.)

Obviously everyone isn’t like me. They come home from work, take care of their kids, make dinner, and flip on the TV.

Why?

An acquaintance recently made a sad but illuminating comment regarding their favorite TV shows, “I know they’re not real, but it feels like they are. It’s like they’re my friends.”

I think the simple answer is that we process the pictures on the TV as though they were real. TV people look like people and sound like people, so who cares if they don’t smell like people? Under normal (pre-TV) circumstances, if you hung out with some friendly, laughing people every day in your living room, they were your family. You liked them, they liked you, and you were happy together.

Today, in our atomized world of single parents, only children, spinsters and eternal bachelors, what families do we have? Sure, we see endless quantities of people on our way to work, but we barely speak, nod, or glance at each other, encapsulated within our own cars or occupied with checking Facebook on our cellphones while the train rumbles on.

As our connections to other people have withered away, we’ve replaced them with fake ones.

Google “America’s Favorite Family“:

OZZIE & HARRIET: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the first and longest-running family situational comedy in television history. The Nelsons came to represent the idealized American family of the 1950s – where mom was a content homemaker, dad’s biggest decision was whether to give his sons the keys to the car, and the boys’ biggest problem was getting a date to the high school prom. …When it premiered, Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family was the highest-rated documentary in A&E’s history.

(According to Wikipedia, Ozzie and Harriet started on the radio back in the 30s, got a comedy show (still on radio) in 1944, and were on TV from 1952-1966.) It was, to some extent, about a real family–the actors in the show were an actual husband and wife + their kids, but the show itself was fictionalized.

It even makes sense to people to ask them, “Who is your favorite TV personality?“–to which the most common answer isn’t Adam Savage or James Hyneman, but Mark Harmon, who plays some made-up guy named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

The rise of “reality TV” only makes the “people want to think of the TV people as real people they’re actually hanging out with” all the more palpable–and then there’s the incessant newsstand harping of celebrity gossip. The only thing I want out of a movie star (besides talent) is that I not recognize them; it appears that the only thing everyone else wants is that they do recognize them.

According to The Way of the Blockbuster: In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule:

in Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, the new book by Anita Elberse, Filene professor of business administration. Elberse (el-BER-see) spent 10 years interviewing and observing film, television, publishing, and sports executives to distill the most profitable strategy for these high-profile, unpredictable marketplaces. … The most profitable business strategy, she says, is not the “long tail,” but its converse: blockbusters like Star Wars, Avatar, Friends, the Harry Potter series, and sports superstars like Tom Brady.

Strategically, the blockbuster approach involves “making disproportionately big investments in a few products designed to appeal to mass audiences,” … “Production value” means star actors and special effects. … a studio can afford only a few “event movies” per year. But Horn’s big bets for Warner Brothers—the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and its sequel, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Sherlock Holmes—drew huge audiences. By 2011, Warner became the first movie studio to surpass $1 billion in domestic box-office receipts for 11 consecutive years. …

Jeff Zucker ’86 put a contrasting plan into place as CEO at NBC Universal. In 2007 he led a push to cut the television network’s programming costs: … Silverman began cutting back on expensive dramatic content, instead acquiring rights to more reasonably priced properties; eschewing star actors and prominent TV producers, who commanded hefty fees; and authorizing fewer costly pilots for new series. The result was that by 2010, NBC was no longer the top-rated TV network, but had fallen to fourth place behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, and “was farther behind on all the metrics that mattered,” writes Elberse, “including, by all accounts, the profit margins Zucker and Silverman had sought most.” Zucker was asked to leave his job in 2010. …

From a business perspective, “bankable” movies stars like Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney function in much the way Harry Potter and Superman do: providing a known, well-liked persona.

So people like seeing familiar faces in their movies (except Oprah Winfrey, who is apparently not a draw:

the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s eponymous 1987 novel and directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme … flopped resoundingly: produced for $80 million, it sold only $23 million in tickets.

Or maybe Beloved isn’t just the kind of feel-good action flick that drives movie audiences the way Batman is.)

But what about sports?

Here I am on even shakier ground than sitcoms. I can understand playing sports–they’re live action versions of video games, after all. You get to move around, exercise, have fun with your friends, and triumphantly beat them at something. (Or if you’re me, lose.) I can understand cheering for your kids and being proud of them as they get better and better at some athletic skill (or at least try hard at it.)

I don’t understand caring about strangers playing a game.

I have no friends on the Yankees or the Mets, the Phillies or the Marlins. I’ve never met a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers, and I harbor no illusions that my children will ever play on such teams. I feel no loyalty to the athletes-drawn-from-all-over-the-country who play on my “hometown” team, and I consider athlete salaries vaguely obscene.

I find televised sports about as interesting as watching someone do math. If the point of the game is to win, then why not just watch a 5-minute summary at the end of the day of all the teams’ wins and losses?

But according to The Way of the Blockbuster:

Perhaps no entertainment realm takes greater care in building a brand name than professional sports: fan loyalty reliably builds repeat business. “The NFL is blockbuster content,” Elberse says. “It’s the most sought-after content we have in this country. Four of the five highest-rated television shows [in the United States] ever are Super Bowls. NFL fans spend an average of 9.5 hours per week on games and related content. That gives the league enormous power when it comes to negotiating contracts with television networks.”

Holy shit. No wonder Borders went under.

Elberse has studied American football and basketball and European soccer, and found that selling pro sports has much in common with selling movies, TV shows, or books. Look at the Real Madrid soccer club—the world’s richest, with annual revenues of $693 million and a valuation of $3.3 billion. Like Hollywood studios, Real Madrid attracts fan interest by engaging superstars—such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward the club acquired from Manchester United for a record $131.6 million in 2009. “We think of ourselves as content producers,” a Real Madrid executive told Elberse, “and we think of our product—the match—as a movie.” As she puts it: “It might not have Tom Cruise in it, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo starring.

In America, sports stars are famous enough that even I know some of their names, like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Michel Jackson Jordan.

I think the basic drive behind people’s love of TV sports is the same as their love of sitcoms (and dramas): they process it as real. And not just real, but as people they know: their family, their tribe. Those are their boys out there, battling for glory and victory against that other tribes’s boys. It’s vicarious warfare with psuedo armies, a domesticated expression of the tribal urge to slaughter your enemies, drive off their cattle and abduct their women. So what if the army isn’t “real,” if the heroes aren’t your brother or cousin but paid gladiators shipped in from thousands of miles away to perform for the masses? Your brain still interprets it as though it were; you still enjoy it.

Football is man-fiction.

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The Neurology of Cross-Cultural Authority? pt 2

As we were discussing yesterday, I theorize that people have neural feedback loops that reward them for conforming/imitating others/obeying authorities and punish them for disobeying/not conforming.

This leads people to obey authorities or go along with groups even when they know, logically, that they shouldn’t.

There are certainly many situations in which we want people to conform even though they don’t want to, like when my kids have to go to bed or buckle their seatbelts–as I said yesterday, the feedback loop exists because it is useful.

But there are plenty of situations where we don’t want people to conform, like when trying to brainstorm new ideas.

Under what conditions will people disobey authority?

As we previously discussed, using technology to create anonymous, a-reputational conversations may allow us to avoid some of the factors that lead to group think.

But in person, people may disobey authorities when they have some other social systtem to fall back on. If disobeying an authority in Society A means I lose social status in Society A, I will be more likely to disobey if I am a member in good standing in Society B.

If I can use my disobedience against Authority A as social leverage to increase my standing in Society B, then I am all the more likely to disobey. A person who can effectively stand up to an authority figure without getting punished must be, our brains reason, a powerful person, an authority in their own right.

Teenagers do this all the time, using their defiance against adults, school, teachers, and society in general to curry higher social status among other teenagers, the people they actually care about impressing.

SJWs do this, too:



I normally consider the president of Princeton an authority figure, and even though I probably disagree with him on far more political matters than these students do, I’d be highly unlikely to be rude to him in real life–especially if I were a student he could get expelled from college.

But if I had an outside audience–Society B–clapping and cheering for me behind the scenes, the urge to obey would be weaker. And if yelling at the President of Princeton could guarantee me high social status, approval, job offers, etc., then there’s a good chance I’d do it.

But then I got to thinking: Are there any circumstances under which these students would have accepted the president’s authority?

Obviously if the man had a proven track record of competently performing a particular skill the students wished to learn, they might follow hi example.

Or not.

If authority works via neural feedback loops, employing some form of “mirror neurons,” do these systems activate more strongly when the people we are perceiving look more like ourselves (or our internalized notion of people in our “tribe” look like, since mirrors are a recent invention)?

In other words, what would a cross-racial version of the Milgram experiment look like?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone has tried it (and to do it properly, it’d need to be a big experiment, involving several “scientists” of different races [so that the study isn’t biased by one “scientist” just being bad at projecting authority] interacting with dozens of students of different races, which would be a rather large undertaking.) I’m also not finding any studies on cross-racial authority (I did find plenty of websites offering practical advice about different groups’ leadership styles,) though I’m sure someone has studied it.

However, I did find cross-racial experiments on empathy, which may involve the same brain systems, and so are suggestive:

From Racial Bias Reduces Empathic Sensorimotor Resonance with Other-Race Pain, by Avenanti et al:

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we explored sensorimotor empathic brain responses in black and white individuals who exhibited implicit but not explicit ingroup preference and race-specific autonomic reactivity. We found that observing the pain of ingroup models inhibited the onlookers’ corticospinal system as if they were feeling the pain. Both black and white individuals exhibited empathic reactivity also when viewing the pain of stranger, very unfamiliar, violet-hand models. By contrast, no vicarious mapping of the pain of individuals culturally marked as outgroup members on the basis of their skin color was found. Importantly, group-specific lack of empathic reactivity was higher in the onlookers who exhibited stronger implicit racial bias.

From Taking one’s time in feeling other-race pain: an event-related potential investigation on the time-course of cross-racial empathy, by Sessa et al.:

Using the event-related potential (ERP) approach, we tracked the time-course of white participants’ empathic reactions to white (own-race) and black (other-race) faces displayed in a painful condition (i.e. with a needle penetrating the skin) and in a nonpainful condition (i.e. with Q-tip touching the skin). In a 280–340 ms time-window, neural responses to the pain of own-race individuals under needle penetration conditions were amplified relative to neural responses to the pain of other-race individuals displayed under analogous conditions.

In Seeing is believing: neural mechanisms of action-perception are biased by team membership, Molenberghs et al. write:

In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how people perceive the actions of in-group and out-group members, and how their biased view in favor of own team members manifests itself in the brain. We divided participants into two teams and had them judge the relative speeds of hand actions performed by an in-group and an out-group member in a competitive situation. Participants judged hand actions performed by in-group members as being faster than those of out-group members, even when the two actions were performed at physically identical speeds. In an additional fMRI experiment, we showed that, contrary to common belief, such skewed impressions arise from a subtle bias in perception and associated brain activity rather than decision-making processes, and that this bias develops rapidly and involuntarily as a consequence of group affiliation. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms that underlie human perception are shaped by social context.

None of these studies shows definitevely whether or not in-group vs. out-group biases are an inherent feature of neurological systems, or Avenanti’s finding that people were more empathetic toward a purple-skinned person than to a member of a racial out-group suggests that some amount of learning is involved in the process–and that rather than comparing people against one’s in-group, we may be comparing them against our out-group.

At any rate, you may get similar outcomes either way.

In cases where you want to promote group cohesion and obedience, it may be beneficial to sort people by self-identity.

In cases where you want to guard against groupthink, obedience, or conformity, it may be beneficial to mix up the groups. Intellectual diversity is great, but even ethnic diversity may help people resist defaulting to obedience, especially when they know they shouldn’t.

A study by McKinsey and Company suggests that mixed-race companies outperform more homogenous companies:

web_diversity_matters_ex_mk_v2

but I can find other studies that suggest the opposite, eg, Women Don’t Mean Business? Gender Penalty in Board Appointments, by Isabelle Solal:

Using data from two panel studies on U.S. firms and an online experiment, we examine investor reactions to increases in board diversity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we find that appointing female directors has no impact on objective measures of performance, such as ROA, but does result in a systematic decrease in market value.

(Solal argues that investors may perceive the hiring of women–even competent ones–as a sign that the company is pursuing social justice goals instead of money-making goals and dump the stock.)

Additionally, diverse companies may find it difficult to work together toward a common goal–there is a good quantity of evidence that increasing diversity decreases trust and inhibits group cohesion. EG, from The downside of diversity:

IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

As usual, I suspect there is an optimum level of diversity–depending on a group’s purpose and its members’ preferences–that helps minimize groupthink while still preserving most of the benefits of cohesion.

Without Ceremony, Religion is Meaningless… (part 1)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

 

Part 1:

So continuing my reflections on why religious belief has decreased so much in the past few decades:

I theorize–this was originally someone else’s theory, so I can’t take credit for inventing it–that the feeling of the divine presence that people feel at worship or festivals is due to the feedback effects of watching everyone around you experience this at the same time–those “mirror neurons” at work, making you experience inside your head the emotions you’re reading on other people’s faces.

This is the power of crowds–the same power that makes grown men willing to pay actual money to sit in a big stadium and watch other grown ups play a children’s game of keep-away, and feel absolutely exhilarated by the experience instead of mortified. The power that makes peaceful people in big groups suddenly torch cars, or feel suddenly patriotic after singing the Star Spangled Banner together.

Once, totally randomly, I happened to park in the middle of an anti-Fred Phelps rally and had to walk along with it to get wherever I was going. (Probably dinner.)

The rally was fun. There was this great sense of togetherness, this electric excitement running through the crowd. A sense of being united in a common cause, something bigger than oneself.

“This must be why people liked the Nuremberg Rallies so much,” I thought. Only those involved half a million people instead of a few hundred. (As fun as they are, I think I will continue to generally avoid political rallies, because I’m not so keen on thinking other people’s thoughts.)

I have also experienced charismatic religious events, back in the days when I was a religious kid. That was an interesting Episcopal church, I gotta say. Anyway, so you know that thing you do with the laying on of hands and praying for the person in the middle of the hands and then you all feel the Power of God and the person in the middle faints (and maybe is healed or whatever)? Yeah, that is pretty fun, too. I mean, I don’t think it works if you don’t believe it–if you don’t believe in god, you’d probably just stand there feeling very uncomfortable while everyone else around you is falling over or making weird noises. But if you do believe, then you get to partake in the experience with everyone else.

And this is where ritual and ceremony come in. It probably doesn’t particularly matter what kind of ritual you have–you can wave around lulavs and etrogs or dance around the May pole or sing hosannas together–the important thing is that the ritual be meaningful to you and involve other people who also find it meaningful. Then every time you do it, you can access both your previous mental states from the past times you did it, and also the mental states of all the people around you, creating the collective experience of deep religious feeling.

It is no accident that many religions encourage their members to worship and study together, rather than apart. For example, Judaism requires a minyan–a group of ten people–for prayer, worship, reading the Torah, etc. It’s not wrong to do these things alone, it’s just seen as superior to do them together. “It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten Israelites are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.” (From the Wikipedia page.)

From Christianity: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

I bet other religions have similar calls to group worship, since group worship is a pretty common occurrence. Individuals of great genuine religiosity may be able to function this way, especially if they spend much of their time reading religious literature and praying and the like, but for the average person who isn’t inclined toward reading, this is probably the fast road to atheism. Luckily for Protestantism, the denominations quickly figured out how to have group religious experiences that rival or exceed Catholicism’s in effectiveness.

These days, however, the same intellectual impulse of, “Why do I have to be around other people to be religious? I can be just as religious at home as at church!” is probably leading a great many people to drift away from religion, leading inevitably to non-belief, since the emotions of others were a critical component of faith all along.

(What’s that, you thought you knew more about how religion works than thousands of years of religious tradition? You thought you could defy Gnon with your “logic” and “reason”? Gnon does not care about logic. Defy, and you will be annihilated, whether you like it or not.)

And as the number of atheists grows, even religious people are increasingly surrounded by people who do not believe, and the amount of belief they can access is thus decreasing. We’ve gone from a society where virtually everyone was Christian and religious expression was seen as a totally normal and welcome part of everyday life, to a society where close to half of young people (the people I typically am around,) are openly non-religious and want nothing to do with that (and even many of the people who claim to be religious make no regular signs of it.) This makes it hard to take religious belief seriously, as people increasingly associate genuine belief with low-class out-groups they don’t want to be part of. (Unless you are part of a prole out-group, in which case you’re probably proud of your religion.)

 

(This might make aspie people particularly bad at religion, because they are [speculatively] less capable of using these feedback structures to internally experiencing other people’s emotions.)

Stay tuned for Part 2: Without Children, Religion is Pointless.