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How Entertainment Works on You

Originally aired on July 28, 2009

How Entertainment Works on You
Why do we care about the lives of celebrities that we will never meet? Why do we spend so much time watching TV, playing video games, and reading People magazine? We speak to the author of "Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You."

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. There's never a reason to have a dull moment in 21st century America. When we're not watching TV, we can play video games on the TV or on our cell phones or on our computers, or we can see a movie or a DVD or even read a book. And if the book gets boring, we can watch TV again. And if we find ourselves with a few minutes without a gadget, we can fantasize about being a celebrity who stars in movies and TV so people will write books and make video games about us someday. We are, as a culture, persistently and perpetually entertained. But being surrounded by entertainment and being seduced by play is a rather new development in human existence. It's not all bad. When we get caught up in a story or scenario that is not our real life, it develops our sense of empathy. But when just having fun becomes the main goal in life, our society could be in for some trouble.


Peter G. Stromberg is an anthropologist, who instead of studying distant cultures, has focused on our own behaviors.

His new book is called "Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You." Welcome, Peter, to These Days.

PETER STROMBERG (Author, Anthropologist): Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think our society is obsessed with entertainment? What does the celebrity culture say about us? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. And, Peter, I want to start by asking a question that you pose in your book, “Caught in Play.” Why is entertainment such a difficult topic for us to discuss and understand?

STROMBERG: I think that’s probably because it’s so close to us. Like I’ve said before, I feel like a salmon trying to talk to other salmon about water and saying, hey, you guys, there’s this really important stuff all around us. And other people say, what stuff? It’s – Entertainment is so much a part of our environment that it’s a little bit difficult to see. You know, we all know people who have very obvious personality characteristics or patterns in their behavior and all their friends can see that but it’s kind of hard for them to see that themselves. I think our culture is a little bit like that. Entertainment is an enormously important aspect of our day-to-day experience but precisely because it’s so close to us it’s hard for us to see, and even if we do see it, it’s kind of hard to – for us to know how to think about it or talk about it or understand what it’s doing.


CAVANAUGH: Well, when you talk about entertainment, Peter, how do you define it in your book? I – is it – is it movies and DVDs and videogames? Or is it more than that?

STROMBERG: Well, it is more than that. I define entertainment as diversion. A good working definition of entertainment might be that it’s kind of the opposite of being bored. And I say it’s more than that because we live in a society now where the values of entertainment have kind of taken over a lot of our existence. So I’m a college professor and I’ve found over the last several decades that there’s an increasing demand for me to be entertaining in the classroom. Politicians have to be entertaining in order to get – to get their vote – to get the vote. And there’s a kind of Darwinian situation, of survival of the most entertaining. And I think that a lot of aspects of our experience now – now need to be entertaining, and one area that’s kind of obvious that you didn’t mention is consumption and advertising. Our – We need to buy entertaining stuff and – and products are constantly – We need our cars to be entertaining. They’re not just supposed to be something that gets us from here to there, we need an entertaining driving experience.

CAVANAUGH: And this is something that is increasing in our culture, is that what you say?

STROMBERG: I think so. As I say, it’s a kind of Darwinian situation. If I want to get attention for the new widget that I’m building, I need to make it – and the advertising for it, I need to make it a little bit more entertaining. And if I do that, people are going to buy my widget but then that’s going to put pressure on the other widget manufacturers to make theirs a little bit more entertaining. So in a society where entertainment becomes kind of the currency and what is so important to us, I think entertainment increasingly tends to invade many different spheres of our lives.

CAVANAUGH: And to go back to that analogy you used about a fish trying to explain water to other fish, there’s a question that seems so obvious but what is the answer to it? What do we, as humans, hope to get from entertainment?

STROMBERG: There is an obvious answer to that question, and it’s fun.


STROMBERG: I think as individuals, we are drawn to entertainment because it is designed to be extraordinarily stimulating and exciting and with the improvements in technology, and particularly technology that’s heavily oriented around trying to make entertainment constantly more stimulating, it becomes evermore arousing and evermore fun. There’s something kind of underlying your question or that I hear in there as well, though, which is what does society get from entertainment? And I think our society, in particular, entertainment is a very important aspect of the very – kind of the moral basis of our society. Entertainment ends up defining a lot of our understandings of who we are and what we want. I mean, people want leisure, people want to have fun. That’s – that’s kind of what we’re after and you might say, well, who doesn’t? Don’t people in all societies and all times want to have fun? And the answer is no, not at all. People live to find the purpose of life and they con – you know, what they are up to in many different ways: military honor, piety, there – the possibilities are kind of endless.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Peter G. Stromberg. He’s an anthropologist who has just written “Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.” And let me ask you, what does the term ‘caught in play’ or ‘caught up in play’ mean?

STROMBERG: Well, I’m sure you’ve had the experience, I know I have, and as a matter of fact I’ve asked lots of people about this and I’ve never found anyone who says that this has never happened to them, of being caught up in a book. You know, it’s 1:00 a.m. and you need to go to bed but you just have to finish the murder mystery and find out who did it.


STROMBERG: Or you’re watching a movie and suddenly two hours have passed and you don’t even recognize that where the time has gone. You’ve been so absorbed in the story. Those kinds of things are what I mean by being caught up. For me, personally, some of the strongest experiences I had, particularly when I was younger, was when I would play sports, never particularly well but always very enthusiastically, of just being utterly focused on a basketball game, for example. So this experience of being drawn into an entertainment or a play experience so that the outside world seems to fade and that seems to become your world, that’s what I mean by being caught in play.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book, you make an analogy, you make – and, actually, you say it’s similar to having an addiction experience with some sort of drug.

STROMBERG: Well, I think in a lot of ways these kinds of experiences, they’re extraordinarily stimulating. People want to have them. And addiction’s a very complicated topic and I don’t, certainly, want to claim that addiction – there are many different kinds of addictions and many different causes of addiction. But I think one thing we need to look at more closely is the extent to which a society that is constantly pushing arousal on people, is constantly raising the bar in terms of how much physiological arousal people can take and are looking for, a society which provides these very stimulating physiological experiences, you know, and then it turns out in that society you have a big problem with people seeking out arousing experiences such as they get with drugs. And I think you have to at least consider that that’s not a coincidence. I also think it’s – it’s a very important part of our whole consumption society. A lot of what we sell to people is arousal in one way or another, music, food, and so on.

CAVANAUGH: And, subsequently, you say that entertainment, therefore, and that sort of consumption has affected our very goals in life.

STROMBERG: Well, absolutely. I think arousal becomes what we are looking for and if we are not aroused, we feel bored. And boredom, it turns out, if you look at the history of boredom, in the English language boredom doesn’t show up until the 18th century or so, which is right around the time of the appearance of the novel and the first early forms of what I would call entertainment. People didn’t really talk – People had different words but people didn’t really talk about being bored before that time. So we want to be aroused, we seek that, if we’re not aroused, we’re bored. And even more broadly, I think we start to conceptualize the very meaning of our existence in terms of some of the goals of entertainment, particularly – This is where I talk, I get into the issue of celebrity to some extent. But the idea of fame and the idea that we all must accomplish something great or we’ve somehow fallen short.

CAVANAUGH: And the effects of celebrity on our culture have been really somewhat profound. In fact, you have a story about doing a blog about the recent death of Michael Jackson and some of the responses that you got to the death of this worldwide celebrity. Tell us about that.

STROMBERG: Yeah, well, I think one of the things that I want to get across to people about entertainment is that it’s really a little bit weird when you think about it. I mean, you know, Michael Jackson—I have nothing against Michael Jackson—but he was a popular singer, had some hits in the sixties and again in the eighties, was a good dancer. Why is his death the cause for an absolute six-week media frenzy? You’d think that the planet Earth had been invaded by aliens or something, given the amount of coverage that’s been devoted to this. And it really, I think, if you sit back and – and think about it, it points out the extent to which both that we’re focused on celebrity and that we don’t really understand – understand why. I think what you’re referring to is the fact that I got a comment from, I think it was a young man, who insisted that it would be possible I think he meant through some sort of activity at the memorial service to bring Michael Jackson back to life. And I suspect that he’s not the only person – I – My blog didn’t attract the only person with that idea. And, of course, that immediately reminded me, those of us who are old enough to remember the years after Elvis Presley’s death know that there was a lot of interest and a lot of – it was actually quite a widespread belief that he could come back to life or had not really – had not really died. And one of the things this points out to us is the extent to which, for really large celebrities, celebrities we really admire, in certain ways some people seem to interpret them on the pattern of Christianity, of the idea that they are somehow like Jesus Christ, which that’s a wacky idea, I think. That’s really something that – that we need to sit back – that points to the fact that this entertainment stuff deserves some serious consideration.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Peter Stromberg. He’s a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa and author of the book, “Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.” The number to call is 1-888-895-5727. And Gia in Clairemont is on the line. Good morning, Gia, and welcome to These Days.

GIA (Caller, Clairemont): I have been stimulated by this program and, Professor Stromberg, you deserve a series…


GIA: …because you have opened a Pandora’s box.

CAVANAUGH: And so you think entertainment is – has taken over our culture, Gia?

GIA: No, I have some – another idea but this is just one phase of what’s going on and thank you for your comments about the Michael Jackson thing. I was beginning to think that I was some kind of a disgraced person because I didn’t get all excited about Michael Jackson’s demise, you know, and I agree with the professor and I – I wish to repeat what I just said, that he has opened a Pandora’s box. But my thought is this, and I’m not an expert of any kind. I’m just an older woman who’s probably learned something by being exposed to life and by having had a very interesting husband who did not seek entertainment but loved work.


GIA: And that is what my – what I’m dealing with.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Gia, thank you for that…

GIA: It’s totally – I’m not through.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I’m sorry, but I…

GIA: I want to replace the word work for the word entertainment.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. I saw that she had in her – wanted to ask this question about is entertainment the antithesis of work? Are they opposites?

STROMBERG: You know, I don’t think so. And thank you for your comments, Gia. I’m glad that you see. You’re another of the salmon that…


STROMBERG: …can see what’s going on. And I think you’re right, that it is a Pandora’s box in the sense that – I mean, my goal here would be to get people to talk more about this. I don’t – I certainly don’t claim to have the answers about entertainment but I sure would like to see more open conversation about it. With regard to work, no, I think the opposite of entertainment is boredom. Work for us, it’s an interesting question. You know, I think those of us who are lucky find stimulation and fulfillment in our work these days but those are kind of consumption values. Those are kind of – the idea of work to those of us who have interesting work is that we find it fulfilling, that we find it, oh, I don’t know, a little bit entertaining, so that the values of entertainment have invaded the work sphere as well. Now I should say that’s probably more the case for middle class folks than for working class folks. At least ten years ago, those who were studying working class values often pointed out that working class folks value work because it helps them to support their families and it’s really that that is important to them. But the larger point is, I think our values of work have shifted considerably and I think we don’t really think of it in the same way as our parents’ generation or, certainly, grandparents’ generation did. The conception of duty, the conception of the calling, have to some extent been, I think, modified in the contemporary situation.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Barbara is in Vista. Good morning, Barbara. Welcome to These Days.

BARBARA (Caller, Vista): Thank you. I’m enjoying the program and I agree with the author professor a hundred percent. It seems to me we now have a society of the screen in which people are cut off from one another and don’t socially interrelate but we also have a society that values sports and entertainers, to whom we pay the most money. Educators are paid the least. We are a society that has dumbed itself down, in my opinion. And we also have a media that sensationalizes. I won’t generalize, but there’s some part of the media that doesn’t know how to report but sensationalizes, exaggerates, distorts, and lies to some extent, and that’s why you have a Michael Jackson who is, really, his death was just over the top. This man is not a statesman or someone who really moves – has moved our society forward in any way, shape or form. He was a talented entertainer but that’s where it ended. And people do not know the difference anymore. They can’t even determine the difference between fact and opinion. So we’ve dumbed down a society and that’s extremely dangerous because there are others in this world who are not dumbing down their society and if we want to, it seems to me, as a nation, and as a society, exist in the 21st century, we’re going to have to look at ourselves, as the professor says, and assess what’s happened to us and take steps to change it.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

BARBARA: I also think this leads to another discussion and I wish you would do – open that up sometime on your program about why our students do not seem to be able to read proficiently. But that goes for the whole society, many of whom read on a fourth grade level because…

CAVANAUGH: Barbara, I’m going to have to cut you off. I’m so sorry. I’ve had to do that to two callers. Professor, your book just engenders a lot of discussion, not simple questions, I’m afraid. But I guess to Barbara’s point about dumbing down, does a society obsessed with entertainment become dumbed down?

STROMBERG: I don’t know if it becomes dumbed down. I do know, as I – as I’ve said, that the arousal value or the excitement or stimulation value of various things becomes much more salient and I do feel, at times, as though that kind of crowds out other things. It crowds out, for example, reflectiveness. It crowds out, I think, how often do we – do we hear people being praised for their wisdom? Wisdom seems to be a word that – This is just anecdotal but I don’t hear that word very much anymore in terms of people’s analysis of situations. And I think Barbara points out that this idea that it’s the sports stars, it’s the celebrities who are really adulated. I think that’s very important. We really do tell our children that they need to have the loftiest of dreams, that they need to reach for the skies, and so on, and I think for a few children, you know, maybe that does encourage them but it also has a flip side, which is, you know, what’s wrong with being a good mathematician or being a good welder or just taking care of your kids. All of those things, this discourse about the incredible importance of fame and the enormous attention we reap – that famous people reap, really, I think, has a significant downside in terms of the fact that only the tiniest proportion of our population will ever be famous. Well, what about the rest of us? Did we fail somehow? And I think that this is something that needs to be carefully talked about.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and that’s one of the messages in your book. My final question to you is, do we – Especially since advertisers are using how we process entertainment to sell us products, is it important that we know more about this subject?

STROMBERG: Absolutely, and there’s, you know, there’s a lot of really good work coming out, empirical work coming out in advertising. Right now John Bargh and his colleagues, social psychologists at Yale, are pointing out just how powerful advertising is. They’ve got a new study out on – just on eating and how just seeing people eat drives tremendous imitation in those – in children who are watching those commercials. I think we need much more literacy in terms of how we react to commercials, to advertising and so on. And we need to get rid of this idea that because it’s only entertainment, it doesn’t really matter. Oh, that’s just what we do for leisure and so on. That’s a clever disguise but I wish it would go away.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much, Peter Stromberg, professor of anthropology and author of "Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

STROMBERG: Thanks so much for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I want to apologize to Gia and Barbara. I had to cut you both off but I want to tell you both, and everyone who called, that you can continue this conversation online. Post your comments to These Days – I’m sorry, it’s These Days will continue in a moment.