Friends In Cerebral Places

Should we envy the man whose most faithful companion is his remote control?

A recent study found that men who watch network news are significantly more satisfied with their friendships than are men with the same number of friends who do not watch these programs. Women who watch a lot of television also report more rewarding friendships, but these women prefer sitcoms and prime-time dramas.

This paradoxical correlation between a nonsocial activity and satisfaction with one's social life makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, according to study author Satoshi Kanazawa, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The human brain is hardwired to respond to stimuli as it did in its ancestral environment, where television and movies didn't exist. Kanazawa says that we have evolved to believe that "all realistic images of people you encounter repeatedly are friends and family. In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness there was no one-way acquaintance, as there is today with celebrities."

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Kanazawa says that gender differences in "viewer-friendly" programs reflect the fact that women cite family members as their closest friends, hence the impact of family-oriented comedies and dramas. Men are more likely to consider coworkers their best friends, a distinction that is reflected in their affinity for network news.

Sociologists frequently attribute excessive television viewing to civic disengagement. But Kanazawa was so convinced that humans unconsciously consider television a social outlet that he reviewed data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in search of an empirical link between watching television and a subjective assessment of one's friendships. He found such data in the General Social Survey (GSS), administered annually to approximately 1,500 subjects. The survey varies each year, but in 1993 respondents were asked about both their television-viewing habits and their friendships.

Kanazawa says that his findings, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, indicate that "there is nothing asocial about watching television, or so the brain thinks. Watching TV is our form of participating in civic groups, because we don't truly know that we are not participating."

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