Undercover Economist

We’re all couch potatoes now

Pushing a button is just too much trouble. We’ll watch anything, as long as we don’t have to think or move

When I was a boy, there wasn’t a great deal of children’s television: the BBC children’s slot ended at 6pm, which meant that my parents didn’t have much trouble restricting my consumption of the “goggle-box”. The exception was Christmas, when cold weather and wall-to-wall festive specials offered the Harford children infinite temptation. My parents developed a strategy for dealing with this: they bought the TV listings (if you can believe it, the Radio Times and the TV Times had a legal monopoly over this then-lucrative business). Then they invited each child to peruse the listings and identify in advance their desired programmes.

This worked rather well. Our collective choices served as a basis for negotiating awkward clashes in a one-television household. A request for excessive TV rations could be vetoed, but the simple act of asking us to write down what we wanted to watch did most of the work.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but there was an additional touch of genius to the idea.

The brilliance involves a concept known to behavioural economists as “hyperbolic discounting”, although it has a perfectly recognisable signature in everyday experience. Many of us have a tendency to avoid activities with long-term benefits and short-term costs, such as exercise, and conversely we love instant gratification.

What makes this behaviour more noteworthy than mere impatience is that hyperbolic discounters are inconsistent. We will intend to exercise tomorrow, eat salads instead of cake tomorrow, and save for our pension tomorrow. As long as the cake is not too imminent, we regard the joys of cake as less important than the risks of blocked arteries thereafter. The trouble is that once “cake tomorrow” becomes “cake today”, the calculus changes – forget the blocked arteries, there’s cake to be had, right now. If only we could commit ourselves today we might make more sensible choices. There is a pension plan called “Save More Tomorrow”, designed with that tactic in mind, and it seems to work.

Might this also apply to TV watching? Amazingly, there is some research on this. The behavioural economists Daniel Read, George Loewenstein and Shobana Kalyanaraman asked experiment participants to choose films from a list that contained both highbrow films – the likes of Rashomon, Three Colours Blue and Schindler’s List – and less challenging fare along the lines of Mrs Doubtfire or Die Hard. When asked to name films to watch immediately, choices tended towards the lowbrow, but when asked to pick films in advance, participants were guided by the better angels of their nature (or, at least, by their inner film critics).

And as with all truly hyperbolic discounting, people often reversed their choices at the last minute if offered the chance to do so. “Yes, I know that Rashomon reinvented the grammar of cinema, but I have had a hard day, and right now I’d like to see Robin Williams in a dress.”

Add to this one of the most depressing findings I have encountered in economics this year, courtesy of Constança Esteves-Sorenson and Fabrizio Perretti in the Economic Journal. The researchers, ingeniously interrogating data from Italian TV’s audience-tracking system, conclude that despite their vast TV-watching experience and almost zero cost of changing the channel, what people watch on television depends on whether it happens to be on the same channel as what they were already watching. One explanation is that all television channels are equally appealing. But the data suggest otherwise. The culprit, instead, seems to be hyperbolic discounting. A world of televisual possibility is only the push of a button away, but pushing is just too much trouble. We’ll watch anything, as long as we don’t have to think or move.

My parents knew what they were doing.

Also published at ft.com.