by Jennifer A. Zimmerman Psychology Department Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York This study investigates what effect, if any, watching television has on people’s sexual behavior.
Left: Figure 1. A page from the survey form that was given to male participants.
The Population Problem
For populous countries such as China and India, population growth is seen as a major and vexing problem. The governments of these nations worry that soon there will be more people than the land can support.
The Chinese Crisis
Chinese officials are developing elaborate, expensive plans for more effective family planning, including the development and delivery of better birth-control services. The Chinese State Family Planning Commission recently announced a series of new scientific and technological projects for the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). These include the production of 15 new contraceptives and abortificant medicines. The technologies under consideration in China have serious drawbacks. They are costly, and are likely to be implemented inefficiently. It could take many years -- perhaps decades -- before their intended effects reached a satisfactory, or even noticeable level. Some different, better method is sorely wanted.
The Indian Innovation
This past year, an official in India proposed that televisions be given to the nation’s citizens, because televisions are an effective form of birth control. The official explained that people would rather watch television than engage in sexual intercourse:
In a mark of frustration over India’s perennially stalled family planning efforts, the country’s health minister has come up with a somewhat Orwellian proposal: distribute telvisino sets to the masses to keep their minds off procreation.... Chandreshwar Prasad Thakur suggested last month to the Indian parliament that "entertainment is an important component of the population policy." To drive down birth rates, he said, "we want people to watch television." Population experts, meanwhile, say the minister’s proposal betrays the false assumption that India’s poor breed merely because they have nothing better to do. [Science, vol. 293, September 14, 2001, p. 1987.]
Perhaps for political reasons, the proposal was received with skepticism.
To Test the Television Theory
Is television-watching in fact an effective method for preventing sexual intercourse? If so, there are phenomenal implications for family planning. Prior research strongly suggests that sexual intercourse is a cause of pregnancy. Therefore, if television prevents people from engaging in sexual intercourse, it might also prevent pregnancy. Furthermore, a decrease in the number of pregnancies might produce a lower birth rate. With that in mind, this study set out to determine whether television-watching is an effective form of birth control.
The study consists of two parts -- a review of the literature on population, fertility rate, and television use; and a survey. The study concentrates on North America, because that is the region in which television use is most widespread among a large population. If television-watching does prevent sexual intercourse, the effect should be most easily discerned in North America. The survey consisted of eight questions. Each question involved a choice between two activities, where each activity was illustrated with a picture. Thus each question involved looking at a pair of photographs.
Female participants were shown photographs of males. Male participants were shown photographs of females. For each pair of pictures, the participant was asked to choose between two options: <> Engage in sexual intercourse with the individual in picture A; or <> Watch individual B on television. Figure 1 shows a page from the survey form that was given to female participants. Figure 2 shows a page from the survey form that was given to male participants.
The subjects who took this study were college students in a physiological psychology course and a psychology-capping course at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. The sample group consisted of 35 individuals: 30 females and five males. Their ages ranged from 18 years to 22 years. Beforehand, a prospectus for the study was submitted to the college’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), where it received approval. The surveys were administered in a classroom setting. Subjects were asked to answer the questions honestly, and were told that all answers would remain anonymous. The surveys were collected after everyone was finished answering all of the questions.
Results, Part 1: Analysis of Historical Data
[An analysis of several decades’ worth of statistical data concerning (a) the number of television sets in use in North America and (b) the birth rate in the United States reveals a simple relationship. As the number of television sets increases, the birth rate decreases. This is shown in Figures 3 and 4. In the period since televisions were introduced into the American home, the average number of individuals per household has steadily decreased. In 1940, before television was available, 7.1 percent of households consisted of one person, and 9.3 percent consisted of seven persons.
In 1940, these two types of households comprised nearly equal percentages of the total number of households. By 1950, 10.9 percent of households had one person, while only 4.9 percent had seven persons. By 1990, the percent of one-person households had increased to 24.5, while only 1.2 percent of households had seven persons living in them. This data is represented in Figure 5. During the entire period, the national birth rate was decreasing. Based on this information, one can conclude that as television-watching increases, the birth rate decreases.
Results, Part 2: The Survey Results
Figure 4. Birth rates in the United States, right.
The survey was designed to test a hypothesis -- that individuals would rather watch members of the opposite sex on television than to engage in sexual intercourse with them. The survey results were impressively clearcut. All 35 subjects reported that they would rather watch the opposite sex on television than engage in sexual intercourse with them. In making an aggregate 240 choices, not one participant preferred sexual intercourse to watching television. The test was re-administered four weeks later. This was done to investigate the re-test reliability for this instrument. There were 23 students in this new sample -- 21 females and two males. Here too, all participants specified that they would prefer to watch members of the opposite sex on television than to engage in sexual intercourse with them.
As mentioned above, statistical analysis indicates that as the number of television sets increases, the birth rate decreases. In light of our survey results, this otherwise perplexing fact now makes sense. When people have access to a television set, they would rather watch television than engage in sexual intercourse. Also as noted above, if individuals are not engaging in sexual intercourse, then they are less likely to get pregnant (this is especially true of females), and this in turn is likely to effect a decrease in the birth rate.
Left: Figure 5. Percentage of all households that have 1 Person, 2 Persons, 3 Persons, etc.
Television is an effective method of birth control. If the Chinese and Indian governments supplied televisions to every household, each country would see a dramatic drop in its birth rate.
"China to Make Population, Family Planning Law," (article dated October, 2001). Available at http://www.cpirc.org.cn/e-policy5.htm "Population, Top Challenge in China’s Western Development," (article dated October, 2001). Available at http://www.cpirc.org.cn/enview1.htm
"SFPC Identifies Key Projects for Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005)," (article dated October, 2001). Available at http://www.sfpc.gov.cn/en/enews20011017-3.htm
This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2002 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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