The Psychology of Entertainment: Why We’re Hooked on Violent Action Thrillers

In previous posts, I explored what encourages long term loyalty to a TV show. All of this entertainment psychological navel gazing was prompted by the original question: how does entertainment “hook” us and how can marketers use that to effectively connect with potential customers, especially online?

The Intrigue of Violence

heath32201_468x312Before we move on from TV, there is one genre we have yet to explore: the action thriller. Why does violence intrigue us? If you think about it, there is nothing rational about this proclivity we have towards violence. In our society, our own bodies are considered taboo. The female breast, the source of sustenance for all of us when we’re born, cannot be seen on TV. Yet we regularly watch, even expect, primetime shows where humans lives are snuffed out without a second thought. If you stop to seriously contemplate this cultural paradox, there can be no logical answer. Why would we possibly be entertained by watching others of our species be subjected to harm? Yet the draw of violent action is undeniably human.

By the time the average American child is 18 they will have watched 200,000 acts of violence on TV. And we, as parents, rarely question this form of entertainment. On any given night, on one channel alone, you’re likely to see a least a dozen murders. In 8 seasons of 24, Jack Bauer has personally dispatched over 200 people (according to There are no fewer than 5 websites that keep tally of Bauer’s body count. Season 4 was the bloodiest, with Jack adding 44 souls to the death toll. Now, if you consider that each episode of 24 represents a single day in Bauer’s life, that means he’s a pretty busy killing machine. Even allowing for the fact that Bauer doesn’t seem to sleep (or urinate, for that matter), that’s still a murder every 32.7 minutes. Now..that’s entertainment!

But why is violence entertaining? It’s not as difficult to understand why sex sells. After all, it’s tied into our need to procreate, so the evolutionary linkages are pretty easy to understand. But our love of violence presents more of a mystery.

It’s More than Good vs Bad

As I wrote before in a previous post, we have pretty simply formulas for a successful narrative – the good guys are supposed to triumph and the bad guys are supposed to be defeated. Action thrillers wrap themselves around this central truth, with the good guys routinely dispatching the bad guys (The Bauer/Bad Guy Kill Ratio certainly reinforces this psychological truth). Every so often, just to keep things interesting, someone close to Bauer meets an untimely end. Those thinking Jack Bauer in romantic terms would do well to reconsider. Bauer’s wives and love interests also have a habit of dying. Losing a sympathetic character hieightens the dramatic impact of the narrative. But if we have this inherent connection with stories, why do we need violence? Would we be just as satisfied if Jack Bauer soundly trounced his enemies in a good game of backgammon? I suspect not.

So it’s not just the good against evil archetype that we look for in an action thriller – it’s the violence itself. And this comes from the same mental circuit that we explored when we looked at why we laugh, our danger detection circuit.

The Sensational High

The human body responds in a unique way to signals of danger. The brain readies the body for fleeing or fighting. And it does so by a sudden release of neuro-chemicals, including the hormone cortisol and both adrenaline and noradrenaline. These chemicals not only ready us for action, they also cause us to believe that we can overcome opposition. Confidence in threatening situations provides an evolutionary advantage, as long as it leave the door open to a rapid exit of the odds are too heavily stacked against us.  Fear, danger and violence all provide us with a natural high that makes us feel more powerful, more positive and more confident. Also, dopamine, the fuel of our reward center, is released as we encounter novel situations. These chemicals, acting together, create a feeling of satisfaction for us.

Psychologists call this need for stimulation sensation seeking. Like most human traits, it’s not universally present or consistent. We have a normal distribution curve of sensation seeking throughout the human population. Marvin Zuckerman created the sensation seeking scale in the 70s. Some of us have an addictive need for sensational stimulation. Some of us avoid it at all costs. Most of us lie somewhere in between. And, not surprisingly, males are more likely to seek sensation through aggressive physical activity and by watching on-screen violence. Televised sports, especially high contact sports like boxing, wrestling, football and hockey all cater to the male need for physical, often violent stimulation.

Studies have found strong links between sensation seeking and addictive personalities. Those that constantly seek sensation are most likely to become addicted to cocaine (which provides a similar high by fooling the same circuits of the brain), alcohol and even gambling. In one interesting twist, some Parkinson’s patients who receive L-dopa, a therapy to replace dopamine, typically lacking in Parkinson’s, suddenly developed a powerful appetite for gambling. By altering the brain chemistry to lessen the adverse affects of their patient’s condition, the doctors unwittingly upped their need to seek sensation.

Hollywood as the Pusher

If danger provides us with a natural high, Hollywood has learned to push this hardwired hot button repeatedly and often. The action thriller is a distillation of sensation. In 60 to 120 minutes, we are treated to a buffet of sensation, all signaling our brain that it should deliver another hit. In our normal lives, few of us are in situations that necessitate the release of these neuro-chemicals more than a few times each year. There is more danger packed into a half hour of primetime TV than most of us encounter in our entire lives.

Given the condensed nature of these threatening stimuli, the brain can’t respond as fully as it would in real life situations. Because our cortex is running governor on all this, continually letting us know that this is all make-believe, the hits are dramatically modulated, providing a minor buzz of stimulation. Still, those with a need for stimulation get what they’re looking for from the average thriller. At the end of the show they feel entertained.

There is increasing concern over the long term effects of this constant stimulation. Does the violence we see of TV lead to increased violence in real life? Academic opinion is divided on this, but the balance seems to be tilted to the “yes” side. If we take a normal distribution of violent, anti-social tendencies amongst the human population (typically, these studies look at the effect of televised violence amongst children) we would have the typical bell curve, with some decidedly anti-violent and pacific, some pathologically violent and the most of us somewhere in the middle. There is mounting evidence that the flood of violent stimuli delivered through the TV set and other entertainment mediums shifts this curve to the violent side. TV violence won’t make a peaceful child suddenly violent, but it can make the child prone to violence more apt to play out their tendencies. TV seems to shift the odds in favour of violence. There is also a self-reinforcing loop here. Violent people seek out violent entertainment. Peaceful people tend to avoid it. Our choice of entertainment reinforces our natural tendencies.

Pure Violence is Not Enough for Long Term Connections

Now, if the action thriller is literally delivering a chemical high to our brain, this would seem to indicate that they would be almost irresistible entertainment choices. Fortunately, it seems that humans have slightly more complex needs than just a never ending high. If we look at thrillers in terms of long term viewer loyalty, violence alone is not enough. While a action block buster might be enough to keep us enthralled for the short term, we need more from our shows to keep us coming back season after season. Mere sensory stimulation catches our attention, but deeper connections with characters are required for emotional bonding over longer periods of time.

The entertainment industry has a long and dubious history of gratifying our sensation seeking needs. But recently, an even more potent sensation “fix” has been discovered. In a violent TV action show, we can watch but we can’t participate. This helps the brain maintain it’s cognitive balance, understanding that this is all a show, that it doesn’t represent reality. This allows us to modify the release of natural hormones and neuro-transmitters. But what happens when we have the ability to interact with these violent, imaginary scenarios? Video games up the ante by adding the very powerful element of control. I’ll explore that in the next post.

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