March 11, 2011 10:30 pm

Television? I barely notice it…

If you asked me, I would tell you that I’m one of those people who hardly ever watches television. I mean, I’ve got a TV. But I’m not really sure why I bother. I watch Match of the Day, I suppose, and the occasional film. I saw that thing with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie the other day. And then sometimes I take in one of those highbrow dramas, such as The Promise. Once in a while I’ll catch a science documentary, or something with a historical bent. And I like to see Michael Portillo as he tootles around Britain on the train.

I’m not saying I’m puritanical. Sometimes I switch on the TV if I have a bit of spare time – say, when I’m waiting for something to cook. Luckily, the ground floor of my house is open-plan, so I can check the cooker and watch the TV at the same time. I’ve only ever done that a few times. And I never eat in front of the TV. Or rather, I only eat in front of the TV in exceptional circumstances. Like, say, when Holby City is on.

I draw the line at The X Factor. That is my absolute line in the sand. I will never, ever watch The X Factor with a straight face. I always watch it with a knowing smirk. Honestly, every time I watch The X Factor, it’s almost as if I’m not watching TV at all.

As you can see, though, I’m in denial. And, according to a survey by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, so are millions of us. In fact, according to Barb’s figures, every day the average person watches an hour more TV than they think they do. Every day. That’s more than 350 hours of TV a year that slip under your radar: that you watch, but don’t know you watch.

This explains quite a lot. The other day somebody was regaling me with the price of bungalows in Perth, Australia (they’re cheap). Now I see that this was not expert knowledge – this was almost certainly knowledge gleaned from Phil Down Under. You might find yourself making a comment about pottery or carriage clocks. Don’t worry – this is not you talking. It’s probably Cash in the Attic.

Of course, we all do plenty of things without being fully aware of what it is we’re doing. Psychologists call it “unconscious competence”. The other term for it is “expert-induced amnesia”. If you do something over and over again, your mind becomes accustomed to it, and you no longer notice that you’re doing it.

The two examples psychologists most often use are tying your shoelaces and driving a car. When you first do something, you think about what you’re doing. But after a while, your brain gets used to it, and everything becomes automatic. At this point, you can do something without thinking about it at all.

There’s no reason, then, why we shouldn’t become unconsciously competent at anything – jogging, say, or doing abdominal crunches, or steaming broccoli. You just have to do something over and over again, until it becomes automatic. Then you can call yourself an expert. For instance, I’m an expert at going into the kitchen, opening the fridge and eating calorific snacks. I’m such an expert that I don’t even notice I’m doing it. Nor do I notice all the time I spend playing computer games such as Plants vs Zombies.

But this does not make me downcast. Instead, it inspires me. With the right application, I could do anything without noticing I was doing it. I could make a start with abdominal crunches. If I did crunches for two hours a day, every day, there would come a point, somewhere along the line, when the act of doing crunches began to slip under my radar. Then I’d have a six-pack.

There’s a catch, though. There’s always a catch. You can only stop automatic behaviour when you consciously think about it. Right now, I can see, quite clearly, that I watch TV, play computer games and snack without being fully aware of it. In 10 minutes’ time, I will have forgotten all about this. If you ask me in 10 minutes’ time, I’ll tell you a different story. I have a TV, I will say. But I don’t really watch it. Match of the Day, I suppose. And the odd film.

William Leith’s next book is about entrepreneurs, to be published by Bloomsbury. Robert Shrimsley returns next week

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