The Psychology of Entertainment: Why We Love Watching in Crowds

3d-audienceWe laugh more at movies when we watch them with others. We get bigger thrills from action thrillers. We’re more likely to cry during a tear jerker. When we’re with a bunch of other people, it’s as if our emotions are turbocharged. Why?

One could say it’s our environment. Sitting in a darkened theater we focus more attention on whatever we’re watching. There are fewer distractions. We become more fully engaged with the experience. This provides part of the answer, but it’s certainly not the entire answer.

One could also say it’s the technology. It would be hard to argue that a billboard sized image that fills our entire field of vision (especially one that gives us a 3D experience) is more powerful than the typical home screen. Back that up with a full theater sound system and you have a powerfully engaging experience. Certainly that might explain the higher octane thrills we would get in an action movie, but it doesn’t seem as applicable in a tear jerker or a comedy. Is a 40 foot high Rachel McAdams more emotionally compelling than a 2 foot high one? Possibly, but the explanation still seems to fall short.

We know that we behave differently in groups than we do as individuals. At its most benign, it’s the shared experience of an entertainment event. At its most sinister, it’s the so called “mob mind,” a crowd induced mentality that through history is responsible for millions of lost lives. The power of synchronized emotion is immense.

The Psycho-Analytic Explanation

But where does this shared experience, this synchronization of emotions, come from? According to Carl Jung, we synchronize our emotions and thoughts when we come together in a group because we all share an identical “collective unconscious“, a universal framework of archetypes and motifs. It’s as if, when we get together, we all have the same subconscious script we’re reading from, written by our collective culture. Freud felt that we act differently towards people when we’re in a group than we do as individuals. The minds “merge” together into one way of thinking and enthusiasm for this view becomes increased as a result. And Le Bon believed it was the relative anonymity of the crowd that allows us to generate collective emotions that we might not have as individuals. All of these speak to a collective “meta” motivation, a common will that lives apart from the individuals who make up the group. Do mobs have a mind of their own? Most of the research done in this area has been around questions that have a much greater social implication than whether we laugh or not at the movie. But perhaps the answer comes from the same place. And perhaps it’s not as complex as Jung, Freud or Le Bon would have us believe. Is there a collective consciousness that takes over, or is it instead some fairly simple inherent mechanisms that come as standard equipment with we humans.

The Evolutionary Explanation

So, to go back to the question, are we more likely to laugh at Jennifer Aniston in a theater rather than at home because we have a shared collective archetype-driven subconscious script that indicates we should laugh at her? Do we laugh because we feel anonymous in a crowded theater and so let our inhibitions slip? Or do we laugh because we have given ourselves over to the collective thinking of the group? Maybe, just maybe, we laugh because the person beside us is laughing. Maybe it’s that simple.

We know that emotion is contagious. “Smile and the world smiles with you.” Cliche? Perhaps, but scientifically true. If we see someone smile, we’re more likely to smile ourselves. This is especially true if we like the person who is smiling. This is Bargh and Chartrand’s “Chameleon Effect.” We mimic others, especially those that we feel emotionally connected to. Emotional contagion is strongest between people who are close: family and best friends. In their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives“, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler cite studies that show when a normal individual is paired with a mildly depressed roommate in college, soon the normal individual also becomes depressed.

Bio Feedback

The amazing thing about emotions are that they don’t always travel from the brain outwards. Our body feeds back signals to the brain that can change our mood. If you smile, you suddenly start feeling better. If you laugh, your outlook on life picks up. Telephone operators are told to smile when they’re on the phone, even though the person on the other end of the line can’t hear them. And there are documented cases of widespread contagious laughter. Dr. Madan and Madhuri Kataria have started Laughter Yoga, a “global movement for Health, Joy and World Peace” based simply on spontaneous laughing, practiced in laughing clubs around the world.

Why do these outward signals of our emotions spread through a group like wildfire, even as they change the very mood of the group? The answer, evolutionary biologists suspect, may lie in the fact that laughter and smiling almost certainly predate language amongst humans. Humans travelled in groups for their own protection. The reason groups are safer than traveling as an individual lies in the fact that groups have many sets of eyes and ears, where a lone human has only one set of each. Groups work as early warning systems. But these systems only work if the word spreads quickly. And that presents a problem. What happens before there were words? This is where our facial expressions and emotions come in.

Our Facial Recognition Hardware

The human brain has a dedicated mechanism solely for reading facial expressions, the fusiform gyrus, which then feeds these signals to the amygdala. The amygdala, as I’ve mentioned before, is the early warning detection system of the brain. And this mechanism makes a very important determination. It either switches on or off our defence mechanisms and it does so subconsciously, in about 1/10 of a second (the same timing, interestingly, that we use to recognize favored brands). So, a look of fear, terror or alarm can alert others around you in a fraction of a second. Language, which uses more recently evolved portions of our brain, can’t respond nearly as quickly. This alarm system alerts those around us by making our emotions their emotions. But it’s not just terror that spreads quickly. We are tuned to pick up any strong emotion and pass it along. Groups that feel the same way about things tend to be a better survival unit than those that don’t. When you think about this, it makes perfect evolutionary sense. It’s not enough to simply make people aware. If you want to survive, you have to ready them for action. And the fastest way to do this is to have the ability to quickly spread the same emotion through a crowd. The human brain is superbly tuned to pull this off. The fairly recent discovery of mirror neurons are responsible for our mimicry and seem to be an integral part of emotional contagion and synchronization. Below, VS Ramachandran provides some amazing examples of how humans lose core abilities when specific parts of the brain have been damaged.

But what happens as we leave the African savannah behind and start hanging out in movie theaters and community playhouses? The same mechanisms come with us, and we use them in the same way. We pick up emotions from those around us. And we do so because we’re wired to do so. It’s not a conscious decision. It’s just a very old part of our brain doing it’s job. And the entertainment industry is starting to incorporate this understanding of human nature into how it builds our entertainment experiences. At the recent TEDActive conference, sheer chance put me beside a psychologist and an amusement park owner during one lunch break. Soon, they were talking about the role of mirror neurons in the design of thrill rides – how closely do you have to sit together and what visual vantage point do you need to let the thrill of a roller coaster spread from one person to the next?

To Laugh, Or Not to Laugh

Perhaps the most interesting example was when Shakespeare’s Globe theater was rebuilt in London. In Shakespeare’s day, plays were performed in broad daylight, people stood together in crowds and they could easily see each other. The plays were raucous affairs filled with laughter, jeers, taunts and strongly expressed emotions. But over time, theaters became darkened and isolated cocoons that started to separate people from each other. When the Globe was resurrected, it was built to be historically accurate. This meant that for the first time in 400 years, people were seeing plays in the same environment they were originally performed in. The result? The crowds seemed to enjoy the plays more. They were noisier, stamped their feet, cheered louder and laughed more. They had more fun. Shakespeare, it appears, knew a thing or two about the power of a crowd.

This all brings up an interesting question for us to consider. In the last few posts I talked about how technology might be turning us into a nation of addicted watchers. Video games may significantly up the bar in false manipulation of the brains circuits. But increasingly, we’re also consuming those entertainment experiences by ourselves. If we’re built to enjoy things more when we’re in a group, what is the long term impact of being entertained alone, in the dark? Will technology start to simulate the effect of a crowd? Will we be put in virtual communities when we watch something? In fact, we’ve already started down this path. TV directors found out very early in the history of the new medium that audiences were much more likely to laugh if they were cued by a laugh track.

In the next posts, I’ll start to bring us back to the original question, which was does entertainment build loyalty online? We’ll look at what we find entertaining online. For example, is a social network useful or entertaining? Do we consume video differently online? Will we build the same loyal viewing habits now that we can timeshift our viewing schedule to our convenience, not the networks? How will an increasingly interactive experience impact our entertainment tastes?

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