Thursday, 5 March 2009

Television - curse of society!

The decline in US ‘social capital’
It isn’t what you know but who you know.” – trad.

Robert Putnam, sociology professor at Harvard, has shown that the US’s social capital, ie the value of the relationships between people, peaked around 1960 and has been in steady decline ever since. He has a LOT of evidence for this, published in 2000 as Bowling Alone and on the web at

His analysis, again very thorough, shows that this is a bad thing. It is damaging to educational performance, child welfare, public safety and prosperity, health, happiness and democracy.

There are several causes, the largest of which is responsible for about 40% of the decline. That cause is television. At risk of gross over-simplification Putnam says that because it is so easy people watch TV rather than going out to meet people and thus making or reinforcing those inter-personal relationships that are the essence of social capital.

He also finds that some kinds of TV programme are more harmful than others. The worst are soap operas and reality TV shows, the least are news and documentary programmes. He does not suggest a reason for this yet I find it intriguing.

Perhaps these are just the most compelling – I will not say ‘best’ – shows.

The psychological roots of the problem

But I think there’s another and more interesting reason. What distinguishes the best from the worst kinds of programme is the importance of on-screen characters. Soap operas and reality TV programmes are about characters rather than, say, plot, location or ideas. And the programme makers try to make their audiences care about these characters; to think of them as real people. (This is easier on reality TV shows because the characters are real people even if acting strangely.)

And here’s why this matters.

Commonsense suggests and a variety of studies confirm that people have a finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. Prof. Robin Dunbar of Oxford, a humanist scientist, has estimated this at 150. Doubtless there is individual variation (and the exact number does not matter). This number reflects the importance of social relationships within hunter-gatherer bands in our evolution.

People tend to treat media images of people as if they were real people. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass of Stanford have shown this in repeated experiments – published as The Media Equation. This rather perverse fact reflects the fact that our minds evolved in a period in which the only things that looked like people were, in fact, people. Therefore on-screen characters will occupy some of their brains’ finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. The effect will presumably be greatest for on-screen characters who appear regularly and that exhibit their relationships with other on-screen characters. The effect will therefore be particularly great for soap operas and least for news, documentaries and music. It will be greater for TV than for cinema.

Therefore people who watch a lot of reality TV and soap operas will have less available capacity for managing relationships with real people. This will be especially acute for soap operas because they have a lot of characters. (60 in Coronation Street.)

Therefore watching TV, especially soap operas, undermines real personal relationships, especially in those who watch most frequently and regularly. That’s pretty much what Putnam found.

What follows?

Many conclusions might be drawn from this analysis. I think the links between sociology, psychology and our evolutionary history make it inherently interesting and possibly significant. However, I won’t claim to be unbiased!

However, the most important conclusions concern the effect of television (and do not depend on my sortie into evolutionary psychology!).

  • First, TV is damaging our society. Social conservatives have claimed this since it first appeared – turns out they were right.
  • Second, the increasing richness of TV (colour, larger screens, more channels and longer hours) is probably making this worse.
  • Third, we should avoid watching soap operas – and make sure our children don’t see them either.

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