The Psychology of Entertainment: a Recap

psychThus far in this series, we’ve covered a lot of territory in looking at the psychology of entertainment. If you remember, when I initially started, my premise was that an audience had to stabilize before it provided a reliable market for advertisers. Unless you knew who you were talking to, you were relegated to conducting “drive-by” marketing, presenting your message to a transient set of eyeballs rather than a real live person you knew something about.

In looking for this loyalty online, we have to move beyond the “bright shiny object” syndrome that typifies much of our digital behavior. There seems to be a segment of our society that flits from trend to trend, creating enticing hockey stick growth curves that both VCs and marketers chase. But in the vast majority of cases, this attention deficit segment eventually moves on to the newest, greatest thing and the jilted online love implodes. For example, along the social network path there are any number of used and tossed aside past favourites. Remember Six Degrees, Friendster or Orkut? Even MySpace has largely given way to Facebook.

My original premise was that we have to find usefulness in an online destination before we’ll give it our loyalty. And we have to be loyal to a destination long enough for marketers to be able to identify a stable audience that they can know something about. Lance Loveday countered by saying that entertainment could also be a factor, along with utility, that leads to loyalty. That’s when I started to look at the psychological underpinnings of entertainment. Up to this point, I have spent much of the time looking at television, simply because it’s our most common form of entertainment. This week, I’ll be going back online to find entertainment, but before that, I should recap the basics of what we’ve learned, because we’ll be applying the same loyalty acid test to online entertainment.

We Love a Story

The most common and consistent element in the history of entertainment is the story. There is something inherently appealing about a narrative. In this post, we discovered that our brains respond well to stories. It’s easier for us to keep details in mind when they come wrapped in a story. Stories give us a rich context to project ourselves into, engaging the brain more fully. Stories are “software” that runs natively on our “hardware.” I gave memory champ Andi Bell and best selling author Malcolm Gladwell as examples.

Some of Us are Addicted to Entertainment

In most human characteristics determined by our genome (weight, height, intelligence, etc) the population plays out on a normal distribution curve, with the majority of us clustered around a central norm. Researchers Timothy Brock and Stephen Livingston found the same is true for our need for entertainment. In this case, they defined entertainment as passive entertainment, such as watching TV, rather than active entertainment like participating in sports. They found there is an unusually high need for entertainment amongst a significant segment of our population. While the norm seems to indicate that we’re very attached to our TV set, in extreme cases, researchers have found that TV consumption borders on true biological addiction.

Our Entertainment is Making Us More Passive

Researchers have found another troubling trend emerging through the 20th century. We appear to be turning into a nation of watchers. We sit back, waiting to be entertained. In many areas of our society, including education and politics, the tradition of Socratic debate has given way to passive consumption of information and, in the case of the later at least, propaganda. Neil Postman, for one, feels we’re “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Robert Putnam found a strong correlation between TV watching and withdrawal from community participation.

How We Connect to TV

So, how did this strong (and in some cases, addictive) bonds to TV form? Our psychological bonds to TV shows parallel our need as social animals to connect with people, to identify our place in our social networks and to share common interests. Cristel Russell, Andrew Norman and Susan Heckler explored how we connected to TV shows and found 3 common bonds: viewer to program, viewer to viewer and viewer to character. The viewer to program bond comes from an aesthetic or artistic appreciation of the show. You applaud it’s production values, or the script. This is probably the most detached bond, and interestingly, is more common in men than women. The next bond is viewer to viewer. Here, a TV show becomes a social lubricant. If gives you something in common to talk about with your friends. The final bond is viewer to character. Here, the veil between reality and fantasy starts to slip a little. At it’s most benign, it’s just an identification with a character in a show. Like tends to bond with like. Grey’s Anatomy if a favourite amongst those that work in the medical profession, for example. And I know at least a few Democratic party faithful who are lifelong West Wing fans. Sometimes viewer-character bonds become less grounded in the real world and turn into delusional obsessions.

Because these bonds to TV are often grounded on social connections, whether real or imagined, it’s not surprising that they are nurtured in the same way face-to-face relationships are. These relationships grow over time, as we learn more about the characters we’re watching. They seem to grow strongest when there is a continuing storyline and character developments we can become engaged in. And finally, this ongoing narrative comes in a language our brains were built to process. We get stories. And we particularly like stories that play out the way we think they should. We like happy endings.

What Makes a Hit Show?

Now that we know the nature of our connections with a TV show, we should be able to predict what would make a successful TV show. What shows cause these bonds to flourish.

If we look at the hits over time, certain themes emerge. In Situation Comedies, characters are more important than the situation. While a novel situation is intriguing in the short term, it’s our connection with the characters that will build long term loyalty. It wasn’t the fact that M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War that made it interesting, it was that the complex environment provided so many opportunities for rich character developments within the show. There can be no situation less interesting than the premise behind Friends – 6 20 somethings living their lives in lower Manhattan. Friends hooked us because we cared about Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe.

The Thin Line Between Humor and Fear

What makes us laugh? At the most basic level, we laugh when we know something that appears threatening turns out to be harmless. Babies laugh when we make light of potentially stressful situations (a primary care giver momentarily disappearing during a game of peekaboo, an adult staging a mock “tickle” attack). This tendency sticks with us throughout our lives. It’s why we laugh at slapstick. Laughter shows that we’ve mastered some small part of our environment. In the case of a joke, it’s the “click” that happens when we solve an incongruity – we “get” the punchline. However, the satisfaction we get from this depend on our social context. Not all jokes are equally satisfying to everyone.

How We Process Humor

Men and women process humor differently. “Getting” humor appears to depend on a delicate balance between right brain and left brain processing. The left brain (the logical side) tends to assemble the required information, but it’s the right brain that comprehends the situation and, at a subconscious level, finds the humor in it. The “click” of getting a joke happens on the right side. That’s why jokes cease to be funny when we overanalyze them (which happens on the left side). It’s also why an academic paper on humor is probably the least funny thing you’ll ever read. As we start to look at the different types of humor, we start to see some divisions in what we find funny. Women, for example, are drawn to humor that involves social situations. Men tend to laugh more at jokes that involve sex and scatological references. And while slapstick can elicit belly laughs, wit tends to draw a smile. Slapstick taps into the fear/humor circuit, where wit is more of a social aspiration.

The Hooks of Our Favorite Shows

In this post, I took a look at some of the success factors of past TV hits.

Survivor – The situation of Survivor, the idea of competition, was the hook here. Unfortunately, by it’s very nature, Survivor found it difficult to carry loyalty from season to season. We had to get to know a whole new cast of characters each time.

West Wing – Witty dialogue and impossibly clever characters set up perhaps the most socially aspirational show in history (at least for Democratically inclined intellectual elitists) but it was overly dependent on creator Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. When Sorkin moved on, so did our interest.

American Idol – The mega talent show seems to be the exception to the continuing narrative rule. Why is this show not suffering the same fate of other season-by-season reality premises? It turns out that American Idol and other shows like it do tap into a narrative – our own. We have a built in need to admire talent, especially undiscovered talent. Where they go, so could we. It’s another cue that comes from our highly social evolutionary past.

Why We Love Violence 

Our taste for violent entertainment actually has a physiological basis. Violence taps into a basic good vs evil archetype, but this alone doesn’t explain it’s appeal. We love violence because it tweaks the danger detection circuits of our brain, releasing neuro-chemicals that give us a natural high. Our bodies become primed for action through the images and sounds we see, and this makes us feel more confident, ready for action and hyper-alert. Violent entertainment tricks our bodies into believing that we’re in danger, so the body responds appropriately. Not all people are alike in this regard. Some of us have a higher need for this type of sensation than others. This trait was quantified in the 70’s by Marvin Zuckerman and his sensation seeking scale. It has been found since that those with the greatest taste for sensation also tend to exhibit other addictive tendencies.

Are Video Games too Real?

If violent entertainment fools our brain into delivering an artificial high by getting us ready for a fight, how can we manage to stay in our seats through a 2 hour movie. As I explained in this post, the danger alert circuit is modulated by our cortex, which dampens down the impact of the alert. Essentially, our brain keeps telling itself that it’s not real, so just calm down. But the new technology being incorporated into video games is making it more and more difficult for our brains to determine what’s real. As games become more sophisticated, with photo-realistic graphics (even in 3d), more interactive and controlled by real body motions and not just a control pad, our brains could be forgiven for forgetting it’s all a game. We already know violent games are mildly addictive as we become dependent on the potent chemical cocktail that gets released as the brain is partially fooled into thinking the danger is real. So what happens, we have to wonder, when these games get even more realistic?

Why We Love being Entertained in Crowds

Why do we enjoy being entertained more when we’re in a crowd? The answer could come from our evolutionary past. The survival success of a herding animal comes from it’s ability to communicate potential danger quickly through the group. So, for humans, emotions are highly contagious. We pick up on the mood of the crowd around us and eventually synchronize our own mood to it. The loops the brain uses to do this are fascinating and are covered off in much more depth in this post.

The purpose of these 11 posts was to explore how we’re entertained. With that in mind, we can then look at our online alternatives and make some guesses about how entertaining we’ll find them. Remember, we’re looking for long term loyalty here, an audience that stays consistent enough that we can start to effectively target marketing messages to them with some understanding of who they are. So, here are the bullet points:

– We engage with narratives
– We connect with characters we care about
– Interactivity can’t get in the way of the narrative.
– Primitive humor and fear share the same basic roots
– Humor is in the eye of the beholder
– We love to admire talent, especially underdogs
– Violence and sensation deliver a natural high
– We are social animals and emotions are contagious

Tomorrow, we’ll start to explore how these foundations of entertainment translate to the online environment. And we’ll begin with an important question: Do we have too much entertainment?

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