Recently there’s been a television promotional advertisement that really bugs me. It shows a man watching events appearing before his eyes and has a voice-over that says something to the effect of “When you look back on your life are you going to see a life filled with interesting people and excitement?” and when is becomes obvious that what the man is watching are clips from television shows ends with “or will you see your own life?”.
(Forgive my poor paraphrasing I seldom watch network television and I couldn’t find a link to the video online.)
But the advert did get me thinking, we occasionally do hear of people that confuse their favourite characters for real people and even that they are personal friends. Now these people may very well have contributing psychological factors but human behaviour exists on a spectrum. Does television watching actually trick our brains into thinking we have more friends than we really do?
This line of thinking lead me to another paper from the mind of controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, of the Intelligence and Monogamy/Liberalism/Atheism paper.In “Bowling with our imaginary friends” Kanazawa postulates that our behaviours developed and were refined in the long periods before the present when there was no such thing as television and the one-sided relationships that we have with fictional characters. As a consequence of this he suggests that we subconsciously treat these characters as if they were truly people we know and interact with. To determine this Kanazawa used an existing social survey (The US General Social Survey) to confirm whether individuals who watch certain types of shows are more satisfied with their friendships.
An additional prediction of the paper took the differences between the make-up of men’s and women’s friendships into account. Women tending to have more friends among family while men have co-workers feature more prominently. Thus the prediction was that women would report more satisfaction with friendships when they watch shows where families interact and men should report more when they watch less personal “people at work” shows.
It’s at this point that Kanazawa loses me a bit, he chose to split the television watching into the subgroups “Drama and sitcoms”, “News” and “Educational” (actually PBS). Where “Drama and Sitcoms” represents the family friendships of women and the other two represent the male circle of friends. In a critique of the paper Jeremy Freese wrote in “Imaginary imaginary friends? Television viewing and satisfaction with friendships”:
“how well does the distinction between dramas/comedies and news/PBS shows map onto the distinction between programs about ‘‘people in families’’ and ‘‘people at work’’? Nielsen ratings for the 1992–1993 television season included 8 dramas or comedies among the 10 most watched shows, but only 3 of these were centered on families (Roseanne, Full House, and Home Improvement; the others were Murphy Brown, Coach, Murder, She Wrote, Cheers, and Northern Exposure).”*
Freeze goes on to note that if television has a direct effect on friendship satisfaction then controlling for satisfaction in other areas should enhance the correlation. This makes the null hypothesis in this case that people who are more satisfied with their life in general then they will be more satisfied with their friendships irrespective of television watching habits. According to Freeze’s reading of the data this is exactly what we find, that there is no significant correlation between television and friendship satisfaction once overall life satisfaction is controlled for.
However, the story gets even murkier, in a follow-up rebuttal (“The relativity of relative satisfaction”) Kanazawa disputes the method Freeze used to calculate overall life satisfaction and himself uses the answers to the survey’s own data on this question (Freeze combined data on satisfaction with other life areas rather than use the dedicated question on this subject). Once re-calculating his result controlling for the extra factor Kanazawa asserts that most of his findings still stand while some even show stronger effects.
So do we have an answer? I don’t know, but it’s certainly an interesting question. If anyone has any info on more recent discussion of this topic I would be very interested in seeing it.
*Yes you read that right, those are some old shows. The papers were written in 2001-2002 based on data from the early 1990s, ah nostalgia.
Kanazawa, S. (2002). Bowling with our imaginary friends Evolution and Human Behavior, 23 (3), 167-171 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(01)00098-8
Jeremy Freese (2003). Imaginary imaginary friends? Television viewing and satisfaction with friends Evolution and Human Behavior, 24 (1), 65-69 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(02)00109-5
Kanazawa, S. (2003). The relativity of relative satisfaction Evolution and Human Behavior, 24 (1), 71-73 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(02)00108-3