What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?

Americans sure do watch a lot of TV. Based on what I could find online, the average person watches between four and five hours a day.

Since the average American works 34 hours a week, and sleeps about 47 hours a week, that means that the average American spends almost half of their waking, non-working time watching TV. Or, stated another way, we spend about as much time watching TV as we spend eating, washing, commuting, socializing, exercising, defecating, fornicating, dancing, singing, playing, and doing everything else we do combined. That’s astounding. And since many of those activities aren’t purely discretionary, it’s safe to say the average American spends more than half of their waking discretionary time in front of a television.

So, this got me thinking, why do we watch so much TV?

And since every human action ultimately has an evolutionary origin, I decided to do a little research to try to understand what the relevant literature said on the subject.

But when I googled, “What’s the evolutionary basis for why humans watch so much TV?” I couldn’t find a single article that was directly on point. Not one. The first article that came up was interesting enough, but it didn’t even mention the word evolution.

As a species, we are not as self aware as we think we are.

So I may be in uncharted territory here. My lack of qualifications notwithstanding,  this strikes me as a very important question. I prefer to have a few professional signposts to guide my way, but if no one else has bothered to write about this, I guess I will.

With that in mind, here is my two-fold answer to the question, “What’s the evolutionary basis for why humans watch so much TV?”

The first explanation is in the conservation of energy. The natural state of human affairs is scarcity and danger. When we’re not experiencing hunger or danger, our bodies tell us to rest to save our energy for the next time when we do. Watching television is a passive activity that requires almost no physical or mental energy, so it’s an easy way to spend time.

But that is only a partial explanation. If conservation of energy were the only concern, we could probably conserve more energy by meditating or staring at the wall.

The second evolutionary cause for why we love television is in the gossip, narratives, and storytelling. Nearly everything we watch on television involves some form of story. The news provides us stories from in our world, usually presented with a bias geared toward the target audience. Most shows regale us with, “complex, emotionally-charged stories [that invite us to] connect emotionally with stories of [people with] their kin.” Sports are just soap operas for boys.

Narrative is absolutely essential to our evolutionary story. Many species organize in groups of dozens or even into the hundreds. But most other primate bands top out at about 150 individuals. According to a number of scholars, the reason humans were able to build larger societies was primarily because of our ability to create narratives and fictions that served our purposes. To organize into populations of millions and billions, humans needed national myths and stories to unite people. If you want a peasant farmer to band together with an urban banker thousands of miles away in times of war, you had better come up with a compelling narrative to unite the two.

Stories are one the most distinctive features of our species. That we should choose to allocate most of our discretionary time to their enjoyment is therefore not surprising. And that we can rest while we’re doing it makes it a natural default setting for our free time.

I’m sure someone with more in-depth knowledge of evolutionary theory could expand on this, but I will leave it at that.