Repetition Without Variation

Over the last twenty years, I’ve taken more and more notice of a curious phenomenon: We are increasingly engaging in repetitive experiences as opposed to engaging in new experiences. I foresee two complications arising from this:

  1. The most immediate problems will affect our children. Our children will be slower to learn and much less well rounded.
  2. As consumers, we will waste a great deal of time and money on repetitive experiences, rather than getting “more bang for our buck” from new experiences.

To illustrate the first complication, consider a child who I will call Jimmy. Jimmy has, since toddler years, had access to a sizeable, but still finite collection of videos. He learned very quickly how to operate the VCR. I have seen him watch the same video repeatedly, sometimes up to ten times in one day. I know from other friends, family members, and other comments in the media that Jimmy is not alone in this behavior. Many parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles have observed that a children will become so enamored of Barney, Spot, Blue, Mickey, Kermit, or some other character, program, or movie, that the child will seek out almost constant engagement with that character.

Consider this: If our children only sought out friends who were of a specific race, many of us (unfortunately not all of us) would become concerned. But that Jimmy only wants to watch videos, play with toys, bathe with washcloths, and eat off of plates that have Picachu emblazoned on them is something we all too often indulge to degrees of excess that equal those of a drug addict seeking to not only get high, but to create an environment that feeds and heightens that high.

When I was between the ages of birth and 10, we didn’t yet have cable TV. We had, in my area, only four television stations. If you couldn’t find the very thing that you wanted to watch, you often times had to either give something else a chance or you had to engage in some other activity than watching television. The first option might mean that you may discover something new — some program or movie or actor or subject that you might not, at first, have been interested in, but having given it a chance, found that it had some entertaining or educational merit. The second option, might have meant having to engage in social discourse with other human beings or venturing out into the yard or the street and having experiences of your own there, rather than watching someone else’s experiences on the television. At the very least, it may have meant being left with nothing to do other than to play with your toys, which your parents spent good money on, and use your own imagination.

Moreover, that last point is the one I find most compelling for children today. Early on, Jimmy didn’t really know how to play with toys or how to pretend anything. Even when encouraged to play or pretend, his first resort was always to play at or pretend something that followed the very formula of his favorite television character or show. Alternatively, he would resort to imitating the adults around him by pretending to work for a hotel, police department, or bookstore, or other activities of the adults in his life. His favorite “play,” in fact, was to pretend to or sometimes even really clean house.

On the adult level, consider the DVD. Yes, DVDs are a wonderful product, bringing the theater experience into the home with an unprecedented level of quality. Nevertheless, why would anyone need to spend $20 or more on a DVD title that they have likely already seen in the theater or could have rented for less than $5? They would have to watch the movie at least four times to bring the cost of owning equal to the cost of renting. And how close together might those viewings occur? Would you watch the same movie twice in one day? One week? One month? Most people would not. Most people might see a particular movie once per year — like It’s A Wonderful Life, which many of us have now seen so many times, often being shown on more than one channel in the same night, that we are loathe to watch it yet again, regardless of how much we might think the movie speaks to something particularly Christian, American, or at the very least human.

Now consider that most people who buy DVDs don’t just buy a few, they buy entire collections. Indeed, with serial movie and TV characters, boxed sets, and limited edition director cuts, they are encouraged to buy more than just a few titles. If you’ve even bought one DVD per month, that’s probably at least $240 dollars per year now tied up in entertainment you will only watch a few times and which will not likely appreciate in value either in enjoyment at watching again and again or in monetary value when you eventually get rid of them (or your heirs do.)

Another adult level activity — and this one may have been enculturated in today’s adults by their upbringing during the last fifty years — is to frequently vacation at the same theme park. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney World and Disneyland, but at least once in your life you have to visit a genuinely historical Colonial place, rather than Liberty Square. How much more impressive must the real Eiffel Tower be compared to the scaled-down version at EPCOT? (And, for those of you who have never been to Disney, well, if that would be a new experience for you, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do it at least once in your life.)

Yes, repetition does play a role in memorization, which can be useful for children to learn rote information. What is at risk for our kids, however, is that, with instant gratification combined with repetition, they will fail to develop their imagination and imagination is crucial to the ability to engage in higher-order abstract thinking. What is at risk for adults is that we will not only dull whatever imagination we have developed, but that we will narrow our minds, rather than continuing to expand them, and waste money and days, months, or even years of our lives doing the same thing over-and-over for less and less reward.

In Jimmy’s case, there were times when he would watch the same video several times in one day — often rewinding it and starting it over immediately. Whenever I was around and had the opportunity to do so, I would sometimes hide his favorite video and encourage him to select a different one. Once or twice he got upset about “losing” his favorite video and would put up a fuss about watching something different. But, when I did get him to finally settle down and watch something different, he always forgot about the first video about ten minutes into the new one and would sit enraptured by the new one, soaking in the novelty of the new characters and new story.

I encourage you to seek something new from time to time, as well, no matter how old you are. Some day, pick a random video at your local video rental store, spin the dial to a different radio station for an hour, order something other than your regular “Texas BBQ Chicken Sandwich” that you always order at the nearby grill, or take your dog for a walk around a different block.

(Footnote: Without conceding to being a hypocrite, I will acknowledge that I have bought a few videos and DVDs and have other things in my life that are repetitive. However, I have more often turned away from repetition than embraced it. Familiarity can be contentment, when you need contentment, and everybody needs some contentment in his or her life. Nevertheless, novelty offers far more interesting, deeper, and longer-term mental and emotional rewards. The most interesting stories you will ever hear or read most likely have an element of novelty to them. Having new experiences gives you more interesting things to talk about and share with others.)


By Christian Lee

Christian Stuart Lee's Rants and Chants has entertained and informed readers since January 2002. Rants and Chants includes non-fiction writing -- anecdotes, essays, movie reviews, and more. He is diligently working on a novel and other projects, which he hopes to publish soon. He is available for freelance writing -- the materials in Rants and Chants will give you a sense of his interests, knowledge, and style.