Defaulting to Distraction

Recently, during a minor surgery for a loved one, I was waiting in the hospital lobby. The main waiting area adjacent to the operating rooms was a tight space with about a dozen chairs. All of the chairs faced an extremely large television. The television was turned on, and the volume was up very high.

I looked around and thought, “Does everyone else around me really want to be watching The Golden Girls at full blast at 7:35 in the morning?”

I suspect the answer was no. No one seemed to be enjoying it (say what you will about how hip Betty White is these days, the humor did not age well). Eventually, I, and almost everyone else waiting in the lobby sought out and moved to quieter areas of the hospital.

It seemed so obviously ridiculous. But it was still happening, and I suspect it probably happens the other 364 days of the year, too. And the same exercise is repeated at hotels, airports, restaurants, laundromats, and other public spaces around the world.

In so much of the public sphere, the default setting is one of intense distraction. And as was the case this morning, sometimes the distraction is loud, in your face, and almost impossible to avoid.

Many of the smartest policy influencers like to think about Nudges and choice architecture, and how that architecture can impact whether we choose to smoke, whether we invest in our retirement, or whether we donate our organs. I’m a fan of this conscious and thoughtful choice architecture as a low-impact, soft, and non-coercive way to influence people’s decision-making.

I know there are some people who have thought about such things, but perhaps this could be a greater point of emphasis. I’m sure the hospital administrators felt they were providing a service by playing the TV all hours of the day and night. I mean, they spent money on the damned TVs, and I’m sure some people like having the noise to distract them. Maybe for some, even the lowest quality, over-the-top distraction is better than being alone with their thoughts, particularly when we know a loved one may be in distress or danger.

But perhaps we can do better for our default social setting than to force-feed 30-year-old sitcoms on everyone around us. Those anxious times in waiting rooms might also be the moments when we could have the most important, tender, and meaningful conversations of our lives. When we could tell the friend or brother that we often take for granted that we love them.

But it’s hard to do that when you have a laugh track cackling at full volume eight feet from your head.

When I was a kid, people smoked on planes. When I was in college, you couldn’t go out to most restaurants or bars without coming home reeking of cigarette smoke. Over time, we decided that second-hand smoke was gross and that the default setting should be a smoke-free environment.

No one decided smokers shouldn’t be allowed to smoke. But we decided we didn’t want to make non-smokers breathe that dirty air everywhere they go. I’m not suggesting we ban The Golden Girls completely (well, maybe). But it’s not strictly necessary to force everyone to watch TV in shared public spaces as a default social norm, either.

Maybe, over time, we could adjust our default settings of distraction. We could decide that the default setting for public spaces could be one with no distractions, and let the TV-watchers adjourn to a TV lounge in some remote part of the building.

Here’s to hoping.