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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

The Turtles, the Racehorses and the Joy of Aggravation

November 18, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

Finally, I have an answer.

I won't say I'm comforted by it, but at least I don't have to keep wondering what's going on.

The question was: Why are so many otherwise normal people addicted to aggravation? In particular, why do they listen to talk radio programs that give them fits? Why do they tear their hair out watching the blowhards on so-called public affairs television and then tune in again next week?

For the longest time, I couldn't fathom this.

You see, I don't watch anything but news on TV, and in fact did not even own one until Sept. 11. I listen to books on my car stereo. So I have little firsthand experience on which to draw.

But I bump into the phenomenon all the time: Family, friends and acquaintances tell me about some outrageous character who said the most maddening things. Thereupon, a strange ritual occurs. I am expected to listen as the offending program is recited, practically verbatim--maybe once, sometimes twice.

It can be Rush Limbaugh or Larry King or G. Gordon Liddy or Howard Stern or any number of local "personalities" I'm not familiar with.

My friends are incredulous. I mean can you believe what so-and-so said? And last week it was even worse ... sputter, sputter.

Often these rants are accompanied by actual impersonations. Whatever tic or mannerism a broadcast personality employs to add to the listener's exasperation is mimicked.

For a while I tried asking, why don't you turn off the box? Or switch channels?

But I stopped doing that when my friends looked at me as if I were spoiling their fun. I was afraid they wouldn't invite me over anymore. So now I try to be polite and pretend to care. My, you're right, that really is the stupidest thing to say. Smile.

Does this behavior make sense, folks?

Actually, I'm afraid it does.

Dr. Marvin Dunn, chair of the psychology department at Florida International University, has answered my question. Why do people subject themselves to radio and television that incenses them?

They do it because it makes them feel better.

Like joggers, the pain of the experience releases chemicals that bring pleasure, the good doctor says. Dunn sounds like he knows his business, having taught "human motivation" for more than 30 years.

"So, why would a person watch a talk-show host whom they hated? Well, why do people go into haunted houses at state fairs or jump out of airplanes? After all, these are stress-producing events," the doctor says. "I think the answer is that not all stress is experienced as negative .... In fact, the experience of stress releases endorphins into the body. These are the body's own hormones which cause us to be able to feel pleasure."

Ah ha, so that's where we get the term TV junkie.

I am tempted to say that life must be pretty dull down on the ranch if you have to pound your head on the tube for relief. But Dunn saves me the trouble:

"Another part of the answer relates to the fact that human beings experience boredom as stressful, indeed so much so that when bored, we will do virtually anything to relieve it."

Even listening to Rush Limbaugh, I guess.

Yes, Dunn continues. "Getting emotionally riled up by some personage we dislike is a way of fighting off intellectual, physical and emotional boredom."

Up to this point, I have been feeling pretty smug about my encounter with Dr. Dunn. Pity my friends. They're working themselves into a froth as a way to relieve the aching boredom of their lives. Maybe I'd better start keeping watch overhead. They'll be parachuting out of airplanes next.

However, Dunn suggests I hold back on the self-congratulations.

There is a personality type for those personality-show listeners--people who "thrive on stress and are only happy with a vigorous, fast-paced lifestyle." The doctor informs me that psychologists call these people society's "racehorses."

Wait a minute. I want a happy, vigorous, fast-paced lifestyle too. Who doesn't? What about me if I'm not a racehorse?

Well, there is another personality type. These are people "who in order to be happy, require peace, quiet and a generally tranquil environment."

OK, so what do they call us?

"Turtles," he said.

Well excuse me. Think I'll crawl back in my shell right now and watch out for flying hooves.

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