Secret Eaters, Secret Viewers

The lies we tell ourselves

Channel 4’s Secret Eaters was rather fun, in a smugness-inducing way.  We got to see a portly couple talking about their eating habits – bananas, healthy Sundays and an occasional treat – they claimed.  Then we followed them around to watch the truth.  Sorry TRUTH, as they stuffed themselves from morning till night.  The husband got through more than 7,000 calories on his healthy Sunday and his wife wasn’t far behind.

It was satisfying in a cruel way – not only was their eating dreadful to observe but they were scoffing liars to boot.  It was like watching an unemployed person (or scrounger in the vernacular) having a kip while scratching his bottom.

Not cause and effect, I should point out

Note, correlation does not imply causality (and sorry, I don’t know who drew this excellent cartoon)


So, all very awkward and finger-pointing, (and I wasn’t entirely convinced that this really was their normal behaviour).  But it did make a serious point – that the little lies we tell ourselves about how much we eat are making us fatter.  My mother spent decades confused as to how she was unable to lose weight until a gastric bypass resolved it once and for all (or not quite) and she lost 100lbs.

Unless you get someone to follow you around and log everything (or perhaps get someone to follow your logs around…), it’s hard to remember what you’ve eaten and what you haven’t.  If we are confronted by how much we eat, we might do less of it, as the programme pointed out, helpfully (so, delay the postprandial sweeping away of wrappers and bones… they can still serve a purpose).

Secret cameras... it'll help

Secret cameras… to observe is to understand

What has this got to do with TV?

What goes for diets can go for TV.  If you ask someone how long they spend watching TV, they don’t really know.  They tend to underestimate how much they get through.  (Though they seem to overestimate the time they spend consuming news, according to this study).

The figures are quite striking.  Some years ago, they asked people to estimate how long they spent consuming various media *.  And then they observed them to find out how long they actually spent.  They were hopeless.

Reading newspapers?  They said 15 minutes.  They actually spent 17.  That’s a decent estimate.

Reading magazines?  They said 8 minutes a day.  The truth? 14 minutes.  Again, this is reasonable.

Listening to the radio? They said 74 minutes.  They actually spent 129 minutes.  Hmm…

Watching TV? The public said 121 minutes. Two hours. The truth? 319 minutes. More than 5 hours.

So, that’s three hours a day that they forgot that they spend with the TV.

They weren’t much cop at estimating time spent online either.

The reasons why people can’t estimate their current behaviour are complex. They would include self-image and embarrassment, forgetfulness, time-blindness, the gap between unconscious habits and rationalised recall of behaviour, and other complex brain processes you’d need a grounding in behavioural economics to unpick.  Perhaps some people don’t think they are really consuming radio or TV because they aren’t totally focussed on it at the time (when in fact they are still consuming it).

And perhaps that’s a good thing.  If we knew how long we really spent doing what we do, we might want to stop. And what would be the point of that when it’s such fun?  We don’t want guilt ruining things.

But for measuring consumer behaviour, it does rather make the point that relying on people’s own estimates of their behaviour (unless there’s no other way to do it) is a fairly useless way to get to the truth.

And asking the public to forecast what they’ll do in the future might help research company wallets put on weight, but it’s likely to expand our knowledge of what’s really going to happen.


On another note, interesting to see Gogglebox airing on Channel 4 last night, at the same time as Charlie Brooker’s ‘How TV Ruined Your Life‘.  Two wonderful celebrations of how powerful TV is.  These are good times to be thinking about TV enriches our lives.


* Papper, Holmes, Popovich, “Middletown Media Studies,” The International Digital Media & Arts Association Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2004.  Recently quoted in an excellent report by the ARF

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