Thursday, September 08, 2005

Arousal Junkies

Flipping through this week's edition of Ad Age, I saw an ad that caused me to pause. The ad, for The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, claimed: "#1 FOR 200 WEEKS AND COUNTING. Beats the Competition Combined."

Wow, I thought. How can that many people stomach that Inside Edition court jester turned want-to-be journalist? Then I remembered my old friend physiological arousal. Relatively early in my graduate career, Annie Lang gave a guest lecture at Cornell just months before I would move to Indiana to work with her. In an aside, she made the point that we watch sex and violence on TV. What do they have in common? They elicit arousal. We are arousal junkies. You see, arousing content reaches in and grabs a hold of something phylogenetically old in us. It compels our attention. We can decry it. We can complain. Yet in droves we watch.

Conflict is arousing, and Bill O'Reilly is good at this. He keeps the pacing of his program fast (also attention grabbing), and he creates conflict. If you dare disagree, he is skilled at making you look like an ass despite what the facts might be. We watch O'Reilly for the same reason we watched Baywatch and Springer. We are programmed to focus on arousing things because the should be important. So we tune out the truth and tune in the ranting idiot. As a scientist, I understand it. As a former journalist, I shake my head.


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