Friday, May 26, 2006

Addicted to Jack Bauer

An interesting article in today's NY Times (paid reg. req.) about "24 withdrawl." Not surprisingly (to me, anyway) many fans of 24 are already bemoaning the 7+ month wait for season six, and preparing to spend their time away rewatching old seasons and probably feeling not much better than Jack is on that Chinese tanker. But the interesting part comes from an email exchange between Judith Warner (the author) and Dr. William Stixrud, a neuropsychologist:

In his talk, Dr. Stixrud had described how TV super-stimulates the brain by continually setting off its “orienting response” — a primitive neurobiological process that keeps people alert. This orienting response is hard-wired; it’s a survival thing, and, with a quickly changing screen, it kicks on again and again — kind of like my dog, who barks every time a truck goes by, or someone parks a car down the street, or a squirrel breathes, or someone opens a mailbox in Kansas.

The experience of having your orienting response incessantly stimulated is draining. When it ends, you are exhausted, but also left with the memory of how much better you felt when it was happening.

But here's the kicker:

Now I asked him by e-mail, “Given all the violence, the jump cuts, the surprises and the multi-screen, multi-socket, emotional roller-coaster ride of each action-packed episode, could ‘24’ itself actually be addictive?” (“If you want to give me a quote saying that this is a ridiculous line of inquiry, that’s fine,” I signed off. )

“It’s a reasonable thing to assume,” he responded. “Anything that’s intensely stimulating has an addictive quality.”

Neuroeconomics has already been growing in popularity and importance (see Tyler Cowen over at MR), but if we really do get addicted to TV, then it seems to me like this is a line of research that is going to be extremely influential going forward.

When it really comes down to it, economics is not best described as the study of how human beings allocate "scarce resources," but is more accurately described as the study of decision-making. True, the ultimate goal of understanding the decision-making process is often to understand how "scarce recources" get allocated, but the fundamentals of it is understanding incentives and how they affect decision-making. So if Jack Bauer, the Desperate Housewives, the Lostaways, and other TV characters can cause "irrational" addictive responses in us, then we've really got to start to understand how neurological response are affecting how we view the incentives we face and the decisions that result from them.


Anonymous dave said...

I was going to write out a comment but I've got to go watch 6am-7am of Season 1.

5/27/2006 11:07 PM  
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