Friday, October 26, 2007

Television, Contradiction, and Social Manipulation

Often, when I enter a bar or a club to which I haven't previously been, I count the number of television screens. I frequently find the high tally somewhat disconcerting. I've entertained a number of possible explanations for the ubiquity of television screens in social gathering places, which range widely in character.

Some time ago I settled on a somewhat concrete biological explanation. In 1927, Ivan Pavlov described what he called the "orienting response," which is basically a physiological reaction to novel stimuli. This reaction is why, if there is a television in the periphery of one's vision, it will draw one's attention, even if one is otherwise engaged in an interesting conversation. Television, because of the types of motion it depicts, and the frequency of edits it employs, activates this "orienting response" continuously.

As described in the February 23, 2002 issue of Scientific American:

"Typical orienting reactions include dilation of the blood vessels to the brain, slowing of the heart, and constriction of blood vessels to major muscle groups. Alpha waves are blocked for a few seconds before returning to their baseline level, which is determined by the general level of mental arousal. The brain focuses its attention on gathering more information while the rest of the body quiets."

What this means is that when one sits in front of a television, one's body becomes relaxed. One's mind creates a positive association between the presence of a television screen and physical relaxation. When one stops watching television, one's mind, furthermore, creates a negative association between the absence of a television screen and the return of one's body return to its previous state of physical arousal.

Armed with this piece of information, I concluded that the ubiquity of television screens in bars subconsciously contributes to the sense of relaxation felt by patrons.

I recently read about a UCLA study which used fMRI scanners to observe the brain activity of television viewers. The subjects in the study were observed while they watched the advertisements run during the Super Bowl. What the researchers found was that many of these ads produced reactions of fear and anxiety. Researcher Said Iacoboni noted that "the amygdala, which is a kind of a threat-detector region of the brain, was much more active compared to other brain regions."

So if the formal properties of television have the effect of keeping audiences physiologically relaxed enough to stay put, the content of broadcast television can be used to simultaneously elicit an opposite emotional reaction.

This insight prompted in me a further re-examination of the more subtle effects of broadcast television. Beyond the contradictory effects that exist between the television and the individual viewer, there exists within broadcast television a mountain of contradictions. This can be seen especially clearly if one considers broadcast television both as a continuous stream of video content and as a series of discrete programs.

When one watches television, one is subjected to numerous advertisements juxtaposed one against the other. These advertisements often try to coerce audiences into doing very different things: spend your money here, no, don't spend your money there; like this person, no, don't like this person; support this cause, no, don't support this cause; do this, no, don't do this. Each advertisement might promote a worldview oppoite to the previous advertisement, or might promote a worldview contrary to the worldview of the scheduled program during which the advertisement is run.

There may be a tendency among individual audience members to "tune out" these contradictions, to dismiss them simply as motivated by the business interests of others; but the fact remains that many people still watch, and what they watch still has an effect.

Numerous studies have been conducted to examine whether television desensitizes individuals to violence; I have seen no study which examines whether television desensitizes individuals to being given contradictory statements, or which examines whether television desensitizes individuals to the distortions of reality that characterize much of advertising and marketing. The fact that researchers are using brain scans to evaluate audience reponses suggests these effects might be quite calculated.

If such a desensitizing effect in fact exists, and people are every day trained to ignore or dismiss lies and contradictions, how might this affect a population's ability to make sound judgments and informed decisions? If television manipulates viewers emotionally while disengaging reason and discernment, might this in part be used to account for the paranoia surrounding the threat of terrorism, which comes at the expense of the threat posed to individuals by drunk drivers and gun violence?

I can recall watching, some time prior to the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, a Public Service Announcement which ran during a Sunday morning political talkshow. The PSA was part of the War on Drugs, depicting a teenage girl purchasing a bag of marijuana. The PSA traced her purchase back to some brutal Mexican druglord, with narration that ran: "Here's Jane, here's Jane's bag of marijuana, here's Jane's drug dealer, here's the supplier for Jane's drug dealer, here's the smuggler who supplies the supplier, and here's the druglord who murdered an innocent family to supply the smuggler." Beyond the fact that most of the marijuana consumed in the United States is produced domestically, I couldn't help but think - as somebody who has never owned a car - about the format of the PSA transposed onto the structure of the oil industry: "Here's Jack, here's Jack's sport utility vehicle, here's the lower-middle-class owner of the gas station Jack frequents, here's the wealthy oil industry executive with his mansion and his summer home and his private jet, here's the Washington lobbyist who makes it all possible, and here's the brutal dictator on the other side of the globe who profits most."

Of course, we've now deposed Saddam Hussein and imposed our Republic's brutal colonialism in order to liberate his former subjects. So where's the contradiction?