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The Case(s) Against Television

What psychologists, economists, and David Foster Wallace think about TV.

From his new blog home over at Wired, Jonah Lehrer mentioned a recent piece in Scienceline about the emerging science of ecopsychology—a topic that, for the record, the Headcase wrote about in May for the APS Observer. (And that, for the record of that record, the New York Times Magazine dutifully covered back in January.)

With that cleared up, I thought I'd quote Lehrer's provocative conclusion to his post:

I sometimes wonder if, when we look back at the mass cognitive mistakes of the 21st century, we’ll worry less about the internet and multitasking—people have been multitasking forever—and instead fret about our turn away from nature. ... [W]e’re only beginning to understand how living in dense agglomerations of perfect strangers, surrounded by skyscrapers and concrete, actually affects the brain.

One thing we've begun to understand is the role cities play in corrupting our attention—or, rather, the role nature plays in restoring it. Psychologists believe a person engages in two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary. As I explain in the Observer:

Involuntary attention is a rather effortless form of engagement with the world. Voluntary (or directed) attention, in contrast, requires a good deal of focus and energy—it plays a central role in problem solving, for instance—and is therefore susceptible to fatigue. Voluntary attention can be restored through sleep, but it can also be restored during waking hours when a person’s involuntary attention becomes highly engaged, essentially giving direct attention a breather.

Research by Stephen Kaplan of Michigan has found that nature is exceedingly apt at engaging our involuntary attention. In test after test, Kaplan and his fellow researchers have drained voluntary attention with a focused mental task, only to find that people recover more attention after strolling through nature than through city streets.

Excuse me, Mr. Headcase, but what does any of this have to do with television?

Relax, I'm getting there. You see how easily attention is fatigued these days?

Anyway, one thing Kaplan stressed to me was that, contrary to what we might believe, television does not provide this healthy sort of involuntary engagement. Kaplan and Marc Berman present their case in a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science (pdf here). Instead of giving voluntary attention a break, television monopolizes it in an attempt to keep us on a certain channel. I continue in the Observer:

As a result, Kaplan and Berman report, researchers have found a direct correlation between the amount of time someone spends in front of the television and that person's irritability. In the short-term, TV shows provide an escape from everyday trials, but over the long-term such escapism prevents the mind from engaging in much-needed reflection.

"The fascination that seems to be important in the recovery of attention is nothing like what happens on television," Kaplan says.

In a comment I wasn't able to fit into the piece, Kaplan expanded on the distinction between engaging with nature and engaging with a screen on a wall:

Television is built around preventing one from changing channels. It's not a friendly approach. While one of the beauties of real nature is that the fascination doesn't prevent you from thinking about other things. You can reflect, work through problems—all of which is likely to be much healthier for you than a situation where your attention has been stolen from you and you can't think about anything. ... I see television as 180 degrees in the other direction. It's basically escapist.

(I feel compelled to interrupt this post for a brief message from the side of the Headcase that very much enjoys television. I don't watch many shows—hurry up and return, "Sunny" and "Curb"—but those I do, I watch and rewatch with abandon.)

Having said that, I recently came across work by economist Bruno Frey at the University of Zurich that compares television with drug addiction (pdf). Frey's research found a strong correlation between watching TV and lower levels of happiness (and, interestingly, a link between reading newspapers and higher life satisfaction). Frey ponders the potential causality:

One possible and reasonable answer is that the heavy TV watchers are subject to a self-control problem: they would like to spend less time in front of the TV but are unable to do so in a consistent and enduring way. According to this interpretation, TV consumption makes people to some extent dependent, as is the case for alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. They therefore find it difficult or impossible to change their behavior and are caught in a situation in which they feel less happy than they know they could.

In David Lipsky's absolutely fascinating book of interviews with the late author David Foster Wallace, which took place after the publication of Infinite Jest in the late 1990s, Wallace frequently discusses his stormy relationship with television—a bona fide addiction, to hear him describe it. Wallace confronted his own TV problem the most direct way possible: by getting rid of his set. Still, one senses the old love remained often on his mind.

In this excerpt, which crosses several pages, he addressed television's impact on both our attention and our happiness:

You know, why are we ... sitting in really expensive chairs, watching the best, you know, watching the most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy—why do we feel empty and unhappy? ... Because one of the differences about having a real person there is that number one, I've gotta do some work. Like, he pays attention to me, I gotta pay attention to him. ... And the thing, what the book [Infinite Jest] is supposed to be about is, What has happened to us, that I'm now willing—and I do this too—that I'm willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I'm not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people. ... I tell you, there's no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years.

The irony of this comment, as Lipsky notes—or, viewed another way, perhaps its point—is that it all but begs us to stay tuned.


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