The Psychology of Entertainment: How Our Brains Connect with Stories

Andi Bell has an amazing memory. In fact, if you shuffled together 10 decks of cards, put them in front of Andi and gave him 20 minutes, not only would he have memorized every single card in the pack, he would have memorized them in order. 520 cards, and Andi will remember every suit, every value and what order they came in. It’s a feat that boggle the everyday mind. Andi, however, has a secret. And that secret is the power of narrative. We love a good story!

As I mentioned last Friday, I want to explore the psychology of entertainment a bit more today as we explore it’s role in marketing. In a post last week, I said that audience patterns have to establish some stability before we can effectively market to them. We have become a society of early adopters, or, at least, marketers treat us as such. Because we are continually rushing from bright shiny object to bright shiny object there is tremendous churn in most online audiences. I called it “chasing Digital Fluff”.

Keeping Your Audience in One Place

But what could create the audience stability I’m talking about? I put forward usefulness as one element. In a comment, Lance Loveday also suggested entertainment value. I found this intriguing, but of course, Lance’s suggestion also raised a number of  questions for me. What represents “staying power” in entertainment? Why are some entertainment channels fads and some long enduring trends? How do our brains respond to entertainment? What is the difference between a TV show and a video game, for instance? What is it about entertainment that makes it so…well…entertaining? And finally, is Lance right? Will the entertainment factor be enough to move some digital channels from fad to trend? And, if so, where should we place our (or more correctly, our client’s) bets?

Today, I want to begin by exploring how we respond to what seems to be the oldest form of entertainment in the world: stories. We humans have a deeply wired connection with stories. I suspect that as soon as humans began communicating, we began telling stories. In fact, stories are so important to us, it appears that we have a special channel in our brains to interpret stories – evolution has equipped us with a specialized story processor. And it’s this story processor that Andi Bell uses to memorize 10 packs of cards. Bell discovered the power of the story processor, what he calls the Linking Technique, and it made him the three time World Memory Champ.

How to Memorize 520 Playing Cards – Tell 1 Story

The human mind never evolved to deal effectively with random facts. Our brain does not deal that well with the abstract. That’s why we invented writing, symbols, alphabets and math. These are the ways we take the non-concrete and manipulate them for our use. The world of our ancestors tends to play out in much less abstract terms: Where is food? Where is water? What happens when I sleep too close to predators? What happens when I steal my neighbor’s dinner? What happens when I overstep the boundary between my tribe and the neighboring tribe?

These were the realities of our ancestor’s lives and, as such, our brain evolved native mechanisms for dealing with these realities. The ability of our brains to navigate through an physical environment or to remember parables (which are nothing more than behavioral reinforcing stories) is highly developed. But in this world, our evolutionary environment, the abstract mechanisms we take for granted may be completely absent. For example, many primitive tribes have no numbering systems, or, if they do, they may be limited to three words: one, two and many. We can remember how to navigate through hundreds of places we’ve been before, or we can remember the important details of thousands of stories, but remembering a phone number consisting of just 7 or 10 digits can be a challenge. It’s not because we’re addle minded, it’s just because our brains use different mechanisms.

Andi Bell discovered this and found a way to link the abstract to the more highly evolved memory modules of our brains: our on-board navigation computer and our capacity for remembering a story.  Bell’s technique is fairly simple. In his mind, he has a standard route imagined through his home town of London, England. He’s memorized the route in detail. That’s the first step. The second step is to create a story that plays out along the route. Here, he takes each card in a standard deck of cards and creates an imaginary stand-in for it. He replaces abstract numbers and symbols with concrete images from the real world. The 8 of clubs could become a brown bear. The 3 of diamonds could become a pineapple. These become the “characters” of a story imagined on the fly. 520 random cards becomes 520 elements in a story spread through the streets of London. To recall all the cards, Andi has to follow the route through London, retelling the story as he goes. Bell’s technique is not new. It’s called the Method of Ioci, otherwise known as the Memory Palace, and was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Why do stories seem to have a more direct path to our memory? What is it about the power of a story that’s so compelling to humans? Whatever it is, Malcolm Gladwell is a master of the power of a story and it’s kept him on top of the best seller list for several years now.

Gladwell’s Secret for Writing Bestsellers

Writing non-fiction is a challenge. It almost always involves the writer getting a bunch of facts or opinions from their head onto paper. That in itself is not a challenge. But getting facts into a form that is compelling to read is. But at least with facts, the writer can choose interesting ones. Opinions offer even more of a challenge. We are naturally suspicious of other people’s opinions. They have to pass through the filter of what we ourselves believe in. So how does the non-fiction writer take this unwieldy bucket of fact and opinion and craft it into something that someone else will want to read? How do you write a non-fiction best seller?  With half a million books published every year (and that’s just the ones we can keep track of), there is an extraordinarily long tail in book selling.  The 100 best selling non fiction books of 2009 represents just .02% of all books published, yet represent a huge chunk of the revenue. If there is a magic formula to making this list, Malcolm Gladwell seems to have found it. Right now, Gladwell has 2 of the 15 top selling non fiction books on the New York Times best seller list – Outliers and What the Dog Saw. Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point were perpetually on top of best seller lists for the better part of the last decade. So, what’s Gladwell’s formula?

Like Andi Bell, Gladwell has discovered the power of narrative and it’s appeal to humans. Malcolm Gladwell collects social observations, both through his experiences and that of his network of friends. When he uncovers a compelling question, he first goes to his collection of observations and then, with a journalists instincts, he uncovers the stories behind the observations and tells these stories with a lucid, clear style. He lets his stories make his point for him, rather than pad his narrative with reams of opinionated rhetoric. Gladwell’s style is irresistibly compelling, making him the most successful non-fiction writer of the last decade.

How We Process a Story

So, why is a story so much more compelling than facts that are simply strung together. Why does Gladwell go to the trouble of finding the stories to illustrate his questions, essentially creating a scientific and sociological “whodunnit” (and in this case, the answer to who is always the same – we did it)? Well, for one thing, the basic premise of any Gladwell book could probably be told in 500 words if all the stories were stripped away. But then, no one would read those 500 words, would they? And additionally, stories make things stick in our brains. We are more accepting of a story and we remember it better. As with memory, our brains were built to accept stories.

There is empirical evidence (Prentice and Gerrig, 1999) that we process narrative differently than we do simple factual rhetoric. Narrative slips in through a different window, one more aligned with the physical world around us. We imagine ourselves experiencing the story. There are concrete hooks in our mind that we can hang the story on, making it more relevant to us. We become engaged with characters in the story. Gladwell wisely adds a generous helping of personal detail about the central characters in his story, as in his compelling description of Lois Weisberg in the Tipping Point :

loisLois (everyone calls her Lois) is invariably smoking a cigarette and drinking one of her dozen or so daily cups of coffee. She will have been up until two or three the previous morning, and up again at seven or seven-thirty, because she hardly seems to sleep. In some accounts — particularly if the meeting took place in the winter — she’ll be wearing her white, fur-topped Dr. Zhivago boots with gold tights; but she may have on her platform tennis shoes, or the leather jacket with the little studs on it, or maybe an outrageous piece of costume jewelry, and, always, those huge, rhinestone-studded glasses that make her big eyes look positively enormous.

Gladwell has conjured an image of Lois in our minds. To make his point, which is that the make up of most social networks include hyper connected hubs like Weisberg, Gladwell invests hundreds of words in creating a vivid profile of her. Why? Because it makes it more real to us. It turns a simple observation – our networks contain super connected hubs – into a story that engages us at a totally different level. We drop our rational guard and allow ourselves to become part of the story. In doing so, he avoids that trap that keeps most non-fiction off the best seller list – he knows that best way to inform is to entertain.

So, we’ve learned that entertainment works best when it slips past our rational processing mechanisms and hits a more concrete, ancient part of our brain. There needs to be ease of access by respecting what our brains were built to do. Tomorrow, I’ll pick the thread up again when I continue to look at the psychology of entertainment.

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