Many of you, I gather, watch Question Time or the Jeremy Kyle show - the two are indistinguishable - only to express dissatisfaction with them. This is a common trait, with important implications for the TV industry and economic theory, as a new paper shows.
Researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca ran an experiment. They got subjects to spend 10 minutes watching TV, where they had a choice of three programmes which they could switch between at any time. One was an 18th century costume drama, one a documentary about immigrants and the third a talk show. For some subjects, the talk show was a calm discussion and for others it was a violent argument.
Where the talk show was a violent argument, subjects watched significantly (27%) more than they did when it was a calm discussion. However, when asked their opinion of the show afterwards, they expressed less satisfaction than they did with the calmer show. This is consistent with Bruno Frey’s finding that watching more TV generally makes folk unhappy. The researchers conclude:
In the presence of arousing content, subjects watch more of a given program, against their own will and interest.
This is true whether the violent talk show is a low-brow gossip show or a high brow current affairs programme: as I say, Question Time and Jeremy Kyle are the same thing.
There are two implications here. One is for the TV industry. Viewing figures alone are no evidence of programme quality. It’s entirely possible for a show to get a big but unsatisfied audience - and for TV executives to chase such audiences by staging controversy. This is not just a snobbish opinion, but an experimental finding.
The second implication is wider. This result flatly contradicts orthodox consumer choice theory, which says that people choose the option which gives them the highest utility. In this case, they do the opposite. Free choices make them worse off. It is an open question how far this finding generalizes.
But even if it does generalize, it would be a large leap of logic to infer from the fact that choice diminishes utility that such choice should be curtailed. Utility isn’t everything.