#62) Testing the Test of Time: The Survival Instinct

Time is one of the hardest–and most widely respected–tests of the quality and validity of all things.  At some point, we’ve all said or heard someone say, “____ (did/didn’t) stand the test of time.”  Lately, however, I’ve been considering a puzzle: there are certain things that have survived time, yet are generally not considered to be of high quality.  High quality is a matter of opinion, of course, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that most people don’t consider McDonald’s, Jerry Springer and Britney Spears to represent respectively the pinnacles of excellence in cuisine, television and music.  Yet all of the above have been household names for quite some time: more than half a century (McDonald’s) a near quarter century (Springer) and a solid decade and a half (Spears).  If these are not quality products, how have they been able to stand the test of time?  Two words: survival instinct.

Let’s start with Mickey Dee’s.  The Golden Arches appeal to our survival instinct on multiple levels.  First of all, as human beings, we are wired to crave high calorie foods: it goes back to our cave man ancestors, who didn’t know where or when they would find their next meal, so stocking up on calories was a matter of survival.  Being able to get food quickly is also important to the survival instinct, as does being able to stretch one’s dollar farther.

What of the masses that chant “Je-REE!  Je-REE!”?  More than one pundit has opined that reality TV’s appeal lies in its ability to let the viewer feel superior to the characters.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the Jerry Springer show.  One could make the leap that the need for humans to feel superior is an extension of the behavior of animals–rams, gorillas, roosters–whose survival and social standing depends on their ability to dominate.

One could argue that as of this writing, the appeal of Britney Spears is more than just that of a human trainwreck; that’s Miley Cyrus’s job.  Sure, she had her embarrassing tabloid moments, but unlike, say, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, Spears has proven that she doesn’t have to disappear to avoid disaster.  Thus she appeals to another facet of the human survival instinct: the identification with the underdog.  We still love Britney not because she entertains us with her drama, but because she’s survived it.  We all want to know that making mistakes is OK; that if we get back in the ring for another round, things will work out no matter how long the odds may seem.

So what do we do with all this?  How does any of this effect the life of you, the reader?  It probably doesn’t, in all fairness; it’s just interesting to consider that things that seem unappealing on the surface may have more of an impact on us than we realize.  I’m not saying that you need to watch Season 6 of “Springer” on Netflix, purchase front-row tickets to Britney Spears’ new show in Vegas or retrace Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock’s ill-fated McDonalds voyage.  Perhaps there are other ways to respond to our survival instinct.   But be that as it may, McDonald’s, Jerry Springer and Britney Spears have managed to become part of our culture, for better or worse.  Form follows function and while appealing to base instincts might not be the most elegant way to pass the test of time, it just might be the most reliable.

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