Random stuff/thoughts

Not a lot of time spent developing these ideas, just some things that popped into my mind.

i. Most people like living their own lives less than they’d like living the lives of others. That’s why most of them spend a not insignificant amount of the time they have more or less complete control over (leisure) watching made-up people’s lives and their progress – or they read about them in books. A big part of why TV-soaps and fictional accounts of made-up people’s lives are very popular is that most people have a strong wish that they were living some other person’s life, a life far more interesting than their own. Because face it, most people’s lives aren’t that interesting. And even for people who’ve done very well for themselves, reality can’t compete with fantasy. Everybody implicitly know this and when we consider societal norms we usually find that taking the fictional stuff too seriously is considered immature, bordering on childish – but strangely enough, spending quite a bit of time in fictional worlds is not. That’s interesting, it’s okay to try to escape reality on a regular basis but only if you’re not too serious about it.

ii. People are extremely good at coming up with plausible sounding reasons for not parting voluntarily with their money. When I say money people just think ‘money’. But money is a claim on resources. And in a biological evolutionary framework resources really matter, bigtime. A big part of most people’s moral philosophy is stuff that they make up on the go, or perhaps their grandparents did. Their ideas about what is moral usually turn out to be ideas that make them look good and make it okay for them to not part with their ressources. Perhaps the ideas that make it through even make it okay for them to cheat others – like the guy on the right:

That’s because other people (and organisms, this process has been implicitly going on since the time before sexual reproduction) have tried to coax and cheat them for millions of years. When your date demands that you pay for her dinner, she’s engaging in the latest of a very long series of battles about limited ressources between the sexes.

iii. When people think about major threats to humanity (perhaps not extinction risk, most people don’t give that one much thought – but at least major risks), most people either think in terms of environmental parameters (climate, asteroids) or in terms of intraspecific competition (we’ll all kill each other in a nuclear holocaust). We like to think that humans are really important, and we like to think that we’re important enough for other life-forms not to matter all that much in the big picture; we like to think that humans are by now beyond the point where interspecific competition even matters. The funny thing is that a disease like smallpox alone was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century – a death toll high enough to wipe out the entire human race just a thousand years ago. Roughly a third of the world’s population has been infected with tuberculosis. People who think we don’t still compete with other lifeforms all the time don’t think big enough – or rather ‘small enough’, as it were.

iv. This is a nice one to have at hand in the future.


August 16, 2011 - Posted by | dating, rambling nonsense, Random stuff, Religion


  1. At i. This seems like “the lazy danish teacher-fallacy” I have opposed since the 8th grade taken a bit further. I may be the odd ball, but I think the “this interest the reader/viewer because he identifies with the protagonist “-angle is way overrated. While it is possible, that identification or “I want to be like him” is the reason you find something interesting, the opposite is also possible, even plausible and documented (I do not want to be Henry VIII, he was a pathetic bastaard, but I really liked The Tudors anyway). It is also possible to find something boring although it has clear identification potential. So while escapism is possible and plausible and documented it does not per definition account for all or even the majority consuming of fictional worlds. If one wants to claim that it does, one has to – at least to convince me – provide some arguments to why this is so.

    So what do I instead think that soaps/Star Trek/etc. provides if not the identification factor?

    Well, for one they provide simple models of the real world in which you can test moral arguments. Whether this be Brandon of 90210 drinking and driving or Data of Star Trek not understanding human behavior they serve that purpose. Identification is not necessary to find this interesting (at least past the point where the soap models a world you can understand – people very much driven by social norms tend not to understand Star Trek, while thinking loners probably have the opposite preference). And it is not necessary to wish to be that samurai/cowboy/fashion model/detective. That they lead more interesting lives only facilitate the plot twists that create situations in which our moral arguments can be tested (and sometimes a nice action or sex scene).

    Other purposes they serve other than escapism:
    – They kill time. This is at least true for a lot of crime fiction. While it probably helps that one of the detetives have a sense of humor that correlates with yours, it is of more importance that the mystery of the episode is at the right intellectual level. If you figure it out too soon or you can’t follow what’s going on, the persons can have however admirable lives, it get’s boring.
    – They have aestethic value. You just like the prose or the scenery, and it doesn’t really matter what goes on. I usually haven’t the slightest clue of what Murakami or David Lynch are telling me, I just like the ride.
    – They are funny (and the reasons for that is a whole new subset of the discussion – and no, I don’t think “because we identify with the characters/situations” is the explanation.).

    There are more, of course.

    Maybe it’s just me, that are not most people (or maybe I don’t know myself as well as I wish), but while I recognize that fictional individuals can lead more interesting lives, and that is one reason why they are fascinating, I don’t that is any grounds for concluding, that most people would like to be someone other than themselves.

    Comment by info | August 16, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment. A short answer (I’ll probably get back to you tomorrow, about to go to bed):

      I thought about including other purposes (like killing time) as well, in fact I deleted a whole paragraph I’d written about what might be termed ‘the convenience factor’ explanation. I know about all that stuff.

      I don’t think these things change the main thing, which is that when you’re being entertained this way, the fictional life takes over and dominates your own life. Not in the ‘oh, now my mind is suddenly the mind of that brilliant police detective’-sense; but in the sense that you spend your time watching somebody else live a different life, instead of living your own. That happens even if you never actually get to the point where you think that you’re actually doctor X telling that very nicely looking 30-year-old hollywood beauty that she has some terrible disease that you can easily cure by virtue of being incredible smart and succesful. We’ve made stuff like this a natural part of our lives, watching other people live lives that are better than our own, so we don’t think of it as weird at all, but I still think in a way it is. Nowhere do I say that it’s not much better to be watching (whatever) than to be bored stiff and you can put a positive angle to it as well (everybody can now become that brilliant police detective, as long as you can afford basic cable or a decent internet connection, without even doing a lot of hard work or taking a lot of risks naturally associated with the lives of those being portrayed).

      Just to make clear, I very, very rarely identify with characters from tv-shows (people with Asperger’s generally have a harder time than ‘ordinary people’ figuring out what’s going on inside other people’s minds and putting themselves in other people’s place), I find books easier to ‘get into’ that way, but the fact that I have a hard time ‘connecting’ doesn’t stop me from being entertained these ways anyway. I don’t necessarily find it a negative thing, but I do find it a bit odd and a little strange that this is to such a significant extent how we decide to spend the time we have for ourselves.

      Comment by US | August 16, 2011 | Reply

      • But still – that only amounts to that we are willing to take a break from our own lifes, not that “most people have a strong wish that they were living some other person’s life”.

        Comment by info | August 17, 2011

  2. Lots of what people do in their spare time involves imaginary worlds (computer games and board games are different examples) as well. We’re social animals which is probably a big part of why most of the popular ways to ‘take a break from the real world’ involves imaginary worlds involving the lives of others (instead of, say, the imaginary world of astrophysics or mathematics) – there’s a huge overlap here.

    I will grant you that the “most people have a strong wish that they were living some other person’s life” formulation in the post was too strong. It was the wrong way to think about the observed behaviour – a more correct way of thinking about it is probably that many people have managed to naturally include in their own lives some parts of the lives of people who are much more succesful than themselves. Whether they actually identify with the fictional characters or even wish that they were them, or whether they just like to spend their time with these brilliant, funny and beautiful (yet flawed) people more than they like spending time with the boring real-world neighbours and work colleagues is probably less important.

    Another interesting thing, which was in fact the observation that had me starting out this whole line of thought, is that we have completely formed our societies around the commonality and pervasiveness of these habits and behaviours. Imagine there were no TV’s and internet, no fiction books. What would people spend their time doing from they got home from work to the time where they went to sleep? Things would look a lot different. It’s a lot of hours.

    Comment by US | August 17, 2011 | Reply

    • I like your corrected way of thinking.

      What is really crazy about those numbers are that they are average numbers. I for instance only spend maybe 30 minutes to a couple of hours in front of the television a week (and that is not a humblebrag, I waste as much time on the internet as the television viewers waste on television). There must be people out there viewing television for 6 or 8 hours a day. Which I think is an inredible effort.

      Comment by info | August 17, 2011 | Reply

      • The fact that those are average numbers goes both ways. One guy spending 12 hours in front of the tv would also count less in the big picture if the number reported was the median. A bit of disaggregation would be nice. What does the distribution look like and where are the kinks? How does tv-watching correlate with stuff like education, income and household size? (my initial hypothesis: -,-,+) Stuff like that would be interesting to know more about.

        But yeah, as I said it’s generally a lot of hours.

        Comment by US | August 17, 2011

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