The X-Factor and the Market for Judgement

December 15, 2010

Over on Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris Dillow has put up a post about whether the X-Factor is a proper subject of polite discussion. He concludes that it is, and pokes a little fun at the ‘haters’ who dislike its revelation of music as merely a commodity, and not something beyond the grind of capitalism.

I’d like to push this discussion on a little further, with reference to the piece I wrote about developing a new concept of liberalism on LDV a little while ago, which focuses on judgement (the determination of which general concept or concepts a particular instance of something comes under). In doing so, I will seek to demonstrate that its success is emblematic of a society of individuals who actively want to be able to form their own judgements, and find insufficient scope to do so in the rest of their lives.

The success of the X-Factor is predicated on its ability to raise money from people phoning in to vote for a particular act. This voting costs money, and is entirely voluntary. No-one forces anyone to vote for the X-Factor, to spend a few pence in order to add their single voice to hundreds of thousands of others. And yet, they do – they spend money on influencing the lives of people they’ll never meet, both for better and for worse. Why on earth would they do such an obviously irrational thing?

This is only explicable if people actively want to judge the proficiency and/or behaviour of others. This is, if you’ll forgive the Kantism, a condition for the possibility of the X-Factor’s success. It’s also an explanation for the pleasure derived from gossip; studies show that it forms a critical source of information that allows us to form judgements about others. We seek it out because we want to form those judgements; judgements as a whole are vital to our success in achieving our goals.

However, gossip in itself is insufficient to demonstrate that people actively want to judge others; it can be cashed out as purely the desire to acquire information about potential mates, as the linked research shows. The X-Factor goes one step beyond this as judgements formed as a consequence of watching it are not about any potential mates, colleagues or companions. They are incidental to your life. We can therefore say that the X-Factor is designed to satisfy the market for judgement.

A potential counter to this could be that people watch it in order to talk about it, to share their judgements with other people. Notwithstanding the fact that this means people only watch the show because other people do so and it doesn’t necessarily explain why it’s more popular than dramas or any other sort of telly, this allows us test our hypothesis. If people watch the X-Factor to gossip about it, you would expect viewing figures to be flat across all professions and walks of life. However, if people watch the X-Factor in order to satisfy a want to form judgements, you’d expect viewing figures to decrease for people who have more opportunity to form judgements in other areas of their life – their work, and so on.

While economic status groups are a poor representative of the scope an individual has to make judgements within the rest of their life, it’s fair to say that better-paid jobs tend to involve more extensive judgement-forming. With this in mind, this YouGov polling which shows that you’re up to 10% more likely to watch the X-Factor if you’re in a lower socio-economic group is revealing. There is a significant demand for more judgement-forming opportunities amongst the less well-off, which employment is not meeting, and so the market is providing. I can therefore make the claim that the existence of call-centres is one of the factors in the rise of the X-Factor.

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3 Responses to “The X-Factor and the Market for Judgement”

  1. I agree, but I still assert that this is a convinient form of social control; and obliges the public to concentrate their attention elsewhere.

    I also think the parallels with Roman civilisation are evident, with the benevolence of the rich eg Cowell, conceding sympathy to participants, which caters for the “mis-lit” phenomenom where the public relish in other’s misfortune.

    • declineofthelogos said

      It is certainly a form of social control, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the Roman parallels. The distinction is that Roman ‘bread and circus’-type activities constituted a net cost to their benefactors; they were actively /intended/ to divert the masses, whereas the X-Factor is an emergent form of control that constitutes a net benefit to its creators. Cowell makes a vast amount of money out of the X-Factor, wealthy ancient Romans didn’t make money out of the Colosseum.

      This distinction is important. If the rich have a vested interest in making sure that the majority of the population have sufficient disposable income to spend on their products, then they have an interest in pushing for policies that will, at the very least, prevent average earnings from going down.

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