The Psychology of Entertainment: Does Entertainment have an Evolutionary Purpose?

One of the interesting things we found about the 20th century was that humans are not really built to deal with abundance. Anytime we have too much of anything, our evolutionary guidance control systems seem to go awry. The human survival mechanisms were designed in an environment of scarcity. In the words of John Locke:

The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

We were built to rise above the odds, to survive in spite of adversity and hardship. In that scenario, the resiliency of humans is astonishing. But once the fight is over, we tend to languish and drift. History has repeated the story over and over again. The first well documented case was the fall of the Roman Empire:

“But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight…. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.”
– Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Getting Soft Does Not Equal Survival

The Inevitable Effect of Immoderate Greatness….a cautionary tale if ever there was one. What does that have to do with the psychology of entertainment? Well, everything. With abundance comes leisure time. With leisure time comes a desire to seek entertainment. And when we seek entertainment to excess, we tend to get mired down as a society. As Edward Gibbon documented, the Roman Empire fell because of many factors – a wide spread empire that overcame its notion of centralized government, the rise of Christianity, economic reasons, but most of all, Rome fell because most Romans found themselves in the leisure class and didn’t know what to do with themselves. They got soft.

We’re A Modern Rome, and that’s not a Good Thing

8293_psychology_cartoon_DKMy personal feeling is that we’re currently following in Rome’s footsteps. The 20th Century was one of extreme excess. The richest parts of the world got fat and lazy. No, not everyone. But on the average, the facts speak for themselves. Over 70% of Americans are fat or obese. If we look at the last 50 years, the percentage of US adults who are obese or extremely obese has gone from under 15% (in 1960) to 41.3% (2006) according to the National Health Examination Survey. And the latest AC Neilsen numbers indicate that the average American spends over 5 hours a day watching TV. That’s 153 hours of TV every single month. Of course, TV’s not the only passive form of entertainment we consume, but it’s by far the most measurable and easiest to identify. Using the internet is rapidly catching up, with Forrester reporting we spend about 12 hours a week, or 50 hours a month, online. Of course, one of the challenges we’ll identify with online time is that it’s difficult to categorize it as entertainment. But let’s say that at least 25% of our time online is spent being entertained in some way (consumption of online video is a popular activity). That brings the grand total to about 165 hours a month being passively entertained, about the same time we spend at our jobs and almost as much time as we spend sleeping. We spend almost a third of our lives being entertained, in one way or the other. This is not active entertainment, this is not social entertainment, and in most cases, this is not intellectually stimulating entertainment. This is sitting in front of a screen consuming mindless entertainment. Humans were not built to do that.

If one were a Darwinist (which I am) one would have to ask – what is the evolutionary point of entertainment? With the single minded view of Richard Dawkin’s selfish gene, how does our creation of and need for entertainment increase the odds of our genes propagating? It’s not an unusual question. The same question has been asked about art, for example. Here, I think it’s important to explore the difference between a genotype and a phenotype, as the two often get confused when evolutionary questions arise.

Genotypes and Phenotypes

The genotype (courtesy of Professor John Blamire) is “the “internally coded, inheritable information” carried by all living organisms. This stored information is used as a “blueprint” or set of instructions for building and maintaining a living creature. These instructions are found within almost all cells (the “internal” part), they are written in a coded language (the genetic code), they are copied at the time of cell division or reproduction and are passed from one generation to the next (“inheritable”). These instructions are intimately involved with all aspects of the life of a cell or an organism. They control everything from the formation of protein macromolecules, to the regulation of metabolism and synthesis.”

The phenotype is “the “outward, physical manifestation” of the organism. These are the physical parts, the sum of the atoms, molecules, macromolecules, cells, structures, metabolism, energy utilization, tissues, organs, reflexes and behaviors; anything that is part of the observable structure, function or behavior of a living organism.”

The difference between a genotype and a phenotype is where many nature/nurture debates get hung up on the rocks. It might be helpful to use an analogy, going back to the concept of a “blueprint”

The Genetics of Urban Renewal

Imagine you’re the architect of a new building that is to be built in the downtown core. You design the building to be the best possible fit for the location where it’s to be built. You put together a highly detailed plan for the building, down to where each outlet is to be placed and the finish of each door knob. Then, you pass the plan over to the construction crew. This is the building’s “genome”.

The building gets built according to your plan, but then your influence over the building is finished. The building becomes a physical object within an environment, and as such, it has many interactions with that environment. These interactions can alter the nature of the building (especially if you’ve built flexibility into your initial design, which is certainly the case in the human genotype) and also, the building will alter the nature of the environment. For example, let’s say this new building was meant as a showpiece for renewal in an older and more run down part of the downtown core. If the building was successful in this goal, one might see it’s spark further development around it, literally changing the face of the environment.

Here’s another example. Let’s say the building was a 32 storey office tower that replaced a 2 storey run down apartment block. Obviously, that’s going to significantly increase the number of people who occupy the “footprint” of the building. In the old building, we might have had 20 lower income families. Suddenly, we have almost 5000 office workers who come to the building between the hours of 8 and 5, then go home. Any urban planner is going to see the dramatic impact that is going to have one the surrounding area. Parking, services, recreational areas, traffic routes…all these things will have to change to accommodate your design.

None of these environment changes were captured in your original blueprint, but they all resulted directly because of your plan. These changes, the interplay between the building and it’s environment, is a rough analogy for a phenotype. The phenotype is the “long shadow” of the genotype.

Evolution is a Harsh Critic of Phenotypes

Here’s another important fact to consider about phenotypes and genotypes. Evolution is relatively ambivalent about phenotypes. While they’re important to the organism, they serve a perfunctory role in natural adaption. Phenotypes are the acid test that determines whether or not genes get passed on. If the genotype leads to a phenotypical environment that results in higher reproductive success, it will get passed on. It if doesn’t, it dies out. This is the sole driver behind Dawkin’s selfish gene.

To go back to our building analogy, it’s as if the sole success of the building was determined by how much lease revenue it generated over a 50 year period. If it generated more than all the other buildings in a 5 block radius, your design would be used again and again. Using this one measure of success, all the phenotypical impact of the building – the rerouting of streets, the sparking of new construction, the addition of parking facilities, the very change in this section of the downtown core – only matter if these led to more lease revenue. If not, all these outcomes of your design are irrelevant.

If we talk about entertainment, I suspect we’re talking about phenotypes, not genotypes. In the next post, I’ll pick up this thought and explore further.

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