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Why You Can’t Stop Staring at the TV in the Bar

My preferred way of watching baseball is to have the game muted and playing on a TV at a bar. That’s because I don’t even watch baseball, but for some reason, I’m completely unable to look away if it’s playing on the wall behind the person I’m talking to at a bar or restaurant. If there’s a screen anywhere in my vicinity, in fact, I’m hypnotized — no matter what’s playing, whether it’s Olympic curling or Quincy, M.E.

But why is a rerun of Supernatural with German subtitles able to distract me so much from all the people I’m out with—no matter whether they’re friends, family or even a date?

According to Ed Vul—an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego who studies intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how we process information—it has to do with the fact that our eyes will always be drawn to the most powerful visual cues in any given setting. Or as Vul more eloquently puts it: “It’s the notion of visual salience — the distinct subjective perceptual quality which makes some items in the world stand out from their neighbors and immediately grab our attention.”

“Some of the most powerful cues to salience are contrast and motion,” Vul adds. “Things that are bright and moving are more likely to garner our attention. TVs in bars and restaurants will tend to be much more visually active than the rest of the scene — they’re brighter and quickly showcase a range of motion.”

Am I powerless, then, to escape the overwhelming allure of an endless loop of prescription drug commercials? Sort of. “The visual properties that define salience are involuntary,” explains Vul. “In the wild, movement tends to be important, which is why our visual salience seems to be instinctive.” So because our ancestors’ survival literally depended on being able to immediately spot movement — a sabertooth tiger in the long grass, say — to this day, the TV is always going to catch your eye.

But if this is such a distraction from the very social interaction we go to bars for in the first place, why do so many places line their walls with TVs? Embarrassingly, it’s because that’s what most of us want. “The decision to include lots of TVs in the restaurant was customer-driven,” restaurateur Greg Keating told the Baltimore Sun in 2013. “It’s about giving people what they’re looking for. At lunchtime, it’s the stock market, current events, news — much like what you’d have on at home to keep in touch. In the evening, we shift our focus to sporting events.”

The good news is that like most instinctive temptations, we can minimize their control over our actions, although in this case they’re blindingly obvious. “Just look away,” says Vul. And if you want to diminish the chance of being drawn back in, “Put the TV further in your periphery. Things in your periphery are blurrier and have lower contrast, so your attention is less likely to be recaptured.”

You heard it here first: If you don’t want to stare at the TV hanging on the wall, sit with your back to it. Either that, or find a new bar without any TVs at all, where you can sit and stare at your phone in peace.