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220px-Braun_HF_1 Over on Twitter the always interesting W Bradford Wilcox highlights the fact that children of more educated parents watch less television. I stumbled upon this datum via social conservative blogger Rod Dreher under the heading How Idiocracy Perpetuates Itself. If you read this blog you are aware of W Bradford Wilcox’s ouvre. It is of the nature that both Left and Right can take some comfort in it, as it serves as an informational balm upon their own particular presuppositional sores. And so here I am to suggest that the data do not declare what you fear sirs!

First, let me put into the record another piece of surprising datum, the average American watches 34 hours of television per week. That’s well near a full time job. But wait, remember that average means a large number watch more than 34 hours. Who are these people? Do you know them? By the fact that you read this weblog I suspect many of you do not. Certainly when I ask my friends they’re agog at this much television watching.

Let me try to intuit what a traditional conservative would take away from this level of watching television. “The people have lost their moral center, and lack appreciation for the edifying arts of yore, debasing themselves to partake of the passive hedonism of our fallen age.” Perhaps I stated it pompously, but I suspect you get the picture. What about a liberal? “The people lack the disposable income to avail themselves of the outdoors and finer pleasures of life, and so must make do with the accessible joys of television.” In other words, for the conservative the passive television watching public have missed the mark of their own free will, they have sinned against what their life was meant to be. For the liberal television occupies the role in the lives of the proletariat it does because they lack the economic wherewithal to enjoy all the finer things they obviously must yearn for.

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

But there may be a different answer. The people watch television because they prefer television to what the cultural elites, Left and Right, would term the “higher arts.” The soul of man is not noble, and it is not made in the image of a divine being on high. It is that of a squalid savanna ape rutting in the open and greedily thrusting sweets into its mouth until waves of satiety wash over its corpulent physique. I certainly watched television when I was a younger person, from Saturday Morning Cartoons such as The Smurfs in the 1980s to reality television in the 2000s. In 2004 as a household we stopped paying for cable, and soon enough managed to fob off our television on a friend. It was not because we disdained television, but because we found ourselves gluttons for it too often. I still remember a Saturday dissipated by a Newlyweds marathon in July of 2004. It was indeed a temptation which we had to toss out of our house, lest we be swallowed by its demands upon our attention.

And yet obviously there was another part of me, which the cultural snobs would praise. I’ve always been ravenous for books, and as a small child had a stack of library books in my bedroom as a matter of course. The habit continues into adulthood. I don’t read because I believe it is morally edifying, or because I have the disposable income to engage in leisure reading. I read because I am. It is my nature, I can do no more, or no less. Public libraries are free, but most humans need television at minimum as an essential supplement, and in most cases a total replacement, for the joys of books. Quantities of library books which one can have for long periods of time for free which in ages past would have been out of the reach of the moderately wealthy are simply not attractive to most, who would pay out the sums demanded by cable television monopolies. For them a life of sensory reception, not one of contemplation or reflection.

Perhaps television can be analogized to sugar, ideally designed to trigger all of our most primal instincts. For the average human, even the not-so-average human, the passive pleasures of television are without parallel. And yet I believe television is likely far less dangerous than sugar: the average human has long been rather dull in comparison to the grand visions which the cultural elites held to be the exemplar of human existence. Their nature is pedestrian, but it can be called to decency. Dullness of nature should not be confused with low moral character. The simple pleasures of television are not fundamentally harmful, and I doubt they leave the mind or soul any less than they were beforehand. More likely the ultimate abomination of television in the eyes of the modern elites rooted in egalitarian presuppositions is that it gives the lie to the argument that all men are the same in their wants and preferences. Whether through self-cultivation or fundamental nature those of power, status, and wealth have aesthetic preferences which move in different directions than that of the mainstream, and they define their own goals as the true goals, as the good goals. The organized religions which emerged in the Axial Age have long been controlled at the highest levels by these classes, so the pleasures of the peasants have always been demonized as ungoldly, base, and sinful. Even when the priestly class killed their own gods, they continue to uphold that old morality.

Despite what what I say above, attempting to step outside of the circle of judgment, it is clear that I can not help but pass judgment, and elevate that which I hold to be true, good, and beautiful, to be what is objectively true, good, and beautiful. Intellectually I dispute such a proposition as self-evident, but emotionally it is difficult to shake that feeling in your bones. Our elites, from Left to Right, are arrogant creatures because they are elite, and wish to reshape all to universals of their own ends. So let us to move to the domain of data. The General Social Survey has a variable, TVHOURS, which asks respondents how many hours of television they watch per day.

Has there been a major drop in the watching of television over the past generation? Not according to these data.


There has been some recent talk about surveys which show that older people watch a lot more television than younger people. Does this show up in the data? From now on I am going to limit the data to the year 2008 or later, unless specified. In any case, yes, older people do watch more television.


How about education? This goes back to the result that W Bradford Wilcox shared.


No surprise. But how about IQ (measured via WORDSUM, a vocabulary test).


The results speak for themselves. Confirming our prejudices, the dull watch more TV than the bright, though even here you notice that the higher orders watch a fair amount of television. But some of you might wonder about confounds of education.


What this tells us is that both education and intelligence have an effect on hours watched of television, though education means a great deal (multiple regression seems to suggest that education has the bigger effect). So that readers can inspect the sample sizes and look at the confidence intervals, here is how you reproduce. First, go to the GSS. Under ANALYSIS, select COMPARISON OF MEANS. For DEPENDENT enter TVHOURS. For ROW enter WORDSUM(r:0-4;5;6;7;8-10). For COLUMN enter DEGREE(r:0;1;3-4). Finally, SELECTION FILTER(S) YEAR(2008-*).

How about income? Here I used the REALINC variable to establish some rough thresholds. You get the idea from this chart….


Now labor force participation (no idea why “Keeping House” is around as a variable in 2008 to 2012, but there it is)? Nothing surprising here.


There’s really no significant difference when it comes to politics.


Finally, how about hours worked? Limiting the sample to full-time workers the correlation between numbers of hours worked last week and hours of television watched is -0.12. Expanding the data back to 1972, the correlation is -0.10. Not large, but it’s robust.

You can explore the data yourself with the GSS.


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  1. AG says:

    Well, I do not watch TV much because of internet access to the things I am interested. Internet allows me both learning and researching about news, an interactive media. I speculate that educated people (or intelligent people) are like to make analysis on their own instead of passive feeding by others. Again, lack of ability for independent thinking about complicated issue is most likely the reason for mentally challenged people in TV watching.

    Since g factor is genentic, there is really no much you can do about behavior from left side of curve.

  2. How does ~3hours a day add up to 34 hours a week?

  3. I’m open to hypothesizing about the opposite cause-effect relationship: that ease of addiction to the large dozes of passive entertainment (which may have a heritable component BTW) interferes with people’s abilities to work, study, and earn, and/or blunts their verbal skills. Since TV hasn’t been around for long enough time for such specific propensities to evolve, the phenomenon must be pleiotropic. It’s easy to hypothesize how other forms of easily consumed entertainables (like cute cat video clips on your phone, or once-hated comics, fall into the spectrum)

  4. How does ~3hours a day add up to 34 hours a week?

    i provided the link when i stated 34 hours because it’s a different method. follow the link, i provide them for a reason.

  5. Would be a nightmare of complexity to study, but really, what kind of television is being watched by the various demographics would be awfully interesting. And for what purpose also. My brain hurts just trying to think about what kinds of categories and parameters would be true and useful. There’s got to be, for example, a significant difference among the watchers of home shopping networks and CSPAN and reality tv and shows on PBS on the different types of varnish you can use in your home woodworking shop. Not to mention all the people who have TV on just for background noise or those who are really paying attention.

  6. The only time I found myself watching large amounts of TV as an adult was one summer when I had a fairly monotonous 9-5 job that involved a lot of physical labor. By the time I got home I was so wiped I’d just turn on the TV and watch whatever was on, more or less mindlessly till bed-time.

    I work much longer hours now, but its much more intellectually engaging and more sedentary, so when I get home I’m still up for more active and less mindless pursuits.

    I suspect a similar effect is the reason TV watching correlates with socio-educational status.

  7. I followed the link and it tells me that….

    The average American then spends another 32 minutes a day on time-shifted television, an hour using the Internet on a computer, an hour and seven minutes on a smartphone and two hours, 46 minutes listening to the radio. But I still don’t understand how 3 hours adds up to 34 hours a week. I’m still confused as an old person with his new TV controller as to how 3 hours a day adds up to 34 hours a weeks. Bear with with me, I’m old and slow. Dagnabbit these consarned gadgets and you whippersnapper kids are getting more difficult and smart alecky by the day.

  8. In Kampala I don’t have DSTV (cable tv) but my American neighbor and alot of my friends obviously subscribe to it.

    Alot of people comment on the amount of time & energy I seem to have for various activities. I have to say it’s alot to do with that I’m a teetollar who doesn’t watch television.

    I hate to sound snobbish but I find much of tv (and increasingly cinema) to be an appeal to the lowest common denominator. I analogize it to food where in modern Western(ised) society prefers taste to texture (what is tasty invariably comes out on top). Again in culture what is fun is going to trump what is meaningful because obviously we live in the world of big brands and large corporations (I say this as a libertarian in theory).

    Other than that I think the art of reading is crucial to the educated mind, perhaps the gift of the gab is equally important to nurture an enlightened one? My fiancee bought me an audio book for my birthday and I looked at it rather skeptically then I realised it’s really a step in the right direction (I’m now trying out Kindles & what not). So technology can be very beneficial for some while for other it’s increasingly about self-gratification (maybe always has been).

  9. I’ve personally lived without a TV for around 14 years now. Got out of the habit of watching TV when I was in Britain on my year abroad. Few students had televisions there, because the TV licence tax that the BBC uses to self fund was generally deemed too expensive. When I came back to the states I initially had a TV, but after six months without watching it or even hooking it up, I realized I wasn’t really into watching it anymore. I probably see more “TV” these days than in a long time due to watching netflix kids shows a few times a week with my daughter, but I really never watch anything for my own pleasure any longer. Reading Wikipedia or something is far more entertaining if I have a few minutes of time to waste.

    Regardless, I believe the reason why smart people don’t watch TV is in large part because smart people comprise a minority of the overall population, and it makes no sense in broadcasting to cater to a minority if you care about ad revenue (unless said minority is really wealthy). I do think even if there were more intellectually engaging things on television, smart people would still watch somewhat less however, since they’d be more likely to do other things (like read, or work) which would cut into said TV time.

  10. To follow up on Karl Zimmerman’s comment as to why the smart don’t watch as much TV I’ll add this. Smart people can read up to 9 times faster than people can talk, so listening is too slow, too boring. Listening is slow motion reading to them. I just watched the conclusion of True Detectives so now and then there is some great stuff on the boob tube. Someone I know who works in Hollywood explained to me why certain made for TV cable shows are so good. The weekly TV shows are crap and the huge budget Hollywood movies have to be popular formula driven, there is too much money at stake. But the made for TV cable shows attract the best writers, the best directors and the best actors even without paying a lot because they are the only opportunity for these talents to be given creative freedom.

  11. As written above, TV is a wonderful pain reliever. A beer in one hand stuck in front of the TV blocks the mind from the ache of physical work and or the tension of physical pain.

    The TV does not exist in the a vacuum. The cultural elites, which happens to have a strong ethnic component in the west, even though it disdains the proletariat, uses it for its purposes. Will and Grace long preceded the call for homosexual unions.

    Also as you have half stated, pre media age, religion was the binding force in society. Now it is the media. The family alter has been replaced by the one eyed hypnotic monster. (You go into alpha wave mode when watching TV). The TV promotes paradoxically individuality and mass uniformity

  12. Dave Chamberlin says “Smart people can read up to 9 times faster than people can talk, so listening is too slow, too boring. Listening is slow motion reading to them.” Oh God, yes! I *hate* when people put up some story or argument that’s all video, when a wall of text with a picture or two would get the entire point across.

    Regarding average time watching TV – averages can hide a *lot* of variation. The long-term unemployed guy who watches TV 14 hours a day while smoking pot and eating Cheetos brings that average up a lot, as does the guy who leaves the TV on all day, and reports that to the survey, even if he spends half that time not really watching.

    I also wonder if there’s some level of exaggeration among avid TV watchers going on when answering the survey, just as men tend to over-report the number of sex partners they’ve had.

    Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that a lot of my more educated friends watch more TV than they did 10 to 20 years ago, partly because there’s more actual good TV out there now. Most TV production is still aimed at the mass market, but some show producers are going for the “long tail” – marketing to smaller segments of the audience with less-expensive shows. It helps that “more educated” generally means “higher-income”, which makes the smaller audience somewhat more lucrative to advertisers.

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