The Psychology of Entertainment: The Genotype of Art and the Phenotype of Entertainment

In the last post, I started down this road and today I’d like to explore further, because I think the question is a fundamentally important one – why do humans have entertainment anyway? What is it about us that connects with it?

Our Brains House a Stone-Age Mind

MaliThere is much about our behaviors are culture that does not align completely with the directives of evolution. It’s easy to see the evolutionary advantage of the opposable thumb or language. It’s much harder to see the advantages that saturated fat, iPods and American Idol give us. As I started to say in the last post, that’s the difference between a genotype and a phenotype. Our genetic blueprint gives us a starting point, a blueprint that cranks out who we are. But, unfortunately for us, there are a number of “gotchas” coded into our genomes. And that’s because the vast majority of the coding was done hundreds of thousands of years ago for an environment quite different that the one we currently inhabit. For example, a taste for high calorie foods. This makes sense if you live in an environment where food is scarce and when you do find it, it might have to sustain you for a day or so. It doesn’t make much sense when there’s a McDonald’s around every corner. The genotype for efficient food foraging, necessary for survival a 100,000 years ago, leads to today’s phenotype of an epidemic of obesity. As evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby say, our brains house a stone-age mind.

This clash between phenotypes and genotypes leads to many of the questions that arise when we apply evolutionary theory to humans. The primary calculation in evolution is a cost/benefit one. How much do we have to invest in something and what is the return we get from it, in terms of reproductive success? For example, why do humans have art? The reproductive purpose of a bow and arrow or a cooking pot seems to be easy to determine. Both ensure survival long enough to have offspring. The evolutionary advantage of a canoe also makes sense – it provides access to previously unobtainable resources, including, presumably, the opposite sex. Canoes enabled prehistoric precursors to the Frat house road trip. But why did we spend hours and hours decorating our weapons, or cooking utensils, or transportation vehicles? What evolutionary purpose does ornamentation have? Art is universally common, one of the criteria for evolved behaviors. The answer, or at least part of it, lies in another human truism – the guy with the guitar always gets the girl. Or, to use Darwin’s label, the Peacock Principle.

Hey, Nice Tail Feathers!

In a previous post, I talked about how admiration plays a big part in entertainment. We’re hardwired to admire talent. Why? Because social status accrues to those with talent. Also, it appears that talented people are more attractive to the opposite sex. This is driven by sexual selection, reinforcing this behavioral trait in the evolutionary psychology. Let’s use the peacock as an example. Somewhere, sometime, a male peacock, through a genetic mutation, was endowed with slightly larger tail feathers. And, for some reason, female peacocks found this to be desirable trait in selecting a mate. The result. The male peacock with the bigger tail feathers got more action. This started an evolutionary snowball that today accounts for the bizarre display of evolutionary energy we see in male peacocks.

Does this account for art in humans? Were artists given special status in our society, allowing their genes an easier path into the next generation? Well, there’s certainly evidence that points in this direction. But Ellen Dissanayake believes there’s more to it than Darwin’s Peacock Principle.

Art: Making Special

Dissanayake believes there are two other factors that explain the presence of art in our culture, and both have to do with how we adapt to our environments. The first question Dissanayake asked was “what is art?” The answer was “making special.” Art, she believes, comes from our need to take the ordinary and set it apart as something to be cherished and honored. And often, these cherished items were integral to the ceremonies we conduct as part of our culture. If you strip art away from ceremony, or ceremony away from art, each half suffers significantly from the separation.

The second question Dissanayake asked was: Why do humans create art? What is the evolutionary “return on investment?” The answer comes in two revelations. When we chose something to “make special,” it wasn’t any old thing that we applied this special treatment to. These favored objects or themes were, not coincidentally, the things that most lead to an evolutionary advantage: weapons, cooking utensils, hunting and foraging, sexual reproduction, vigorous health – the things that propelled our genes forward into future generations. The Darwinian logic here is obvious – by elevating these things to a higher status, we focused more attention on them. Our culture enshrined the very same things that provided evolutionary advantage.

Dissanayake’s second revelation revives a recurring theme in human history. We seek to control our environments. Art soothes us in the most uncontrollable parts of our lives. And it’s here where the connection between ceremony and art is at it’s most basic. The ceremonies in our lives, across all cultures, are at the times of greatest transition: birth, marriage, war, sickness and death. It’s here where we gain some small measure of comfort in the control we can exert over our ceremonies, and as part of those ceremonies, we create art. As I mentioned before, a sense of control, the solving of an incongruity, is also the psychological basis of humor. We seek to control the uncontrollable, through our mythologies, our culture and our beliefs. This illusion of control over the uncontrollable has a direct evolutionary benefit. It allows us to get on with our lives rather than obsess about things we have no control over.

Through these two observations, Dissanayake was able to connect the dots between art and an evolutionary payoff. She believes an appreciation of art is part of the human genome, an evolutionary endowment that drives our aesthetic sense. There are universal and recurring themes in the things we find aesthetically pleasing that go beyond something explainable by cultural influence. When it comes to art, just as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker believe with language, there is no “blank slate.”

What’s the Evolutionary Purpose of Entertainment?

But what about entertainment? If art starts in the genotype and extends through the phenotype, is the same true for entertainment? Does entertainment serve an evolutionary purpose?

When we talk entertainment, the line between genotypes and phenotypes gets much harder to detect. There is very little I could find that would parallel Dissanayake’s exploration of the evolutionary purpose of art when it comes to entertainment. The fact is, historically humans don’t do very well when we get too much leisure time on our hands.

Most of our genetically driven behaviors and traits are built to insure survival, as they should be. Propagation of genes requires survival, at least to child bearing years. When humans thrive, to the point of having excess time on our hands, those survival mechanisms start working against us. We become fat and lazy, literally. Genes drive us to get the maximum return for the minimum effort. This works well when every hour of the day is devoted to doing the things you need to do to survive. It doesn’t work so well when we can cover the basics of survival in a few hours a day.

Leisure time is a relatively new phenomenon for humans. Except for a few notable exceptions, we haven’t had a lot of time to be entertained in. The exceptions provide a stark warning for what can happen. Leisure time exploded in ancient Rome as slave labor suddenly allowed the citizens of Rome to stop working for a living. The same was true in ancient Greece and Egypt. This fostered a dramatic increase of artistic output, but it also lead to an gradual erosion of social capital, leading to complacency and ennui. Eventually, these cultures rotted from the inside.

Let’s look at the causal chain of behavior here. Leisure time allows talented artists in our culture to “make special” more often. We have a hardwired appreciation of this art, so we admire those that create it. This gives them greater status and social benefits. Which makes us admire them more, but also become envious of them. We are built to emulate success, but in this case, there is no identifiable path to take. We may admire the benefits but we haven’t been granted the ability to follow in their footsteps. A cult of celebrity starts to emerge. Once it starts, this cultural snowball picks up speed, leading to ever higher status for celebrities and greater admiration and envy from those watching. Greed emerges, along with a sense of entitlement. Our values skew from survival to conspicuous consumption, driven by genes that are still trying to maximize returns from an ever increasing pile of consumable resources. The phenotype of this genetically driven consumption treadmill is not a pretty sight.

Entertainment Seems to Live in the Phenotype, Not the Genotype

Try as I might, I could not find a evolutionary pay off for entertainment, which leads me to believe it’s a phenotypical phenomenon, not a genotypical one. At it’s most benign, entertainment is a manifestation of our inherent need for art and ceremony. At that level, entertainment seems to live closest to the gene. But it doesn’t stay there long. Fuelled by our social hierarchal instincts, entertainment seems to rapidly sink to the lowest common denominator. It rapidly steps from art to raw sensory gratification. It’s much easier to absorb entertainment through the more primitive parts of our brain than to employ the effort required to intellectualize it.

To be honest, I’m still grappling with this concept, as you can no doubt tell from this post. There’s a big concept here and one of the joys and frustrations of blogging is that you never have the time to properly explore a concept before having to post it. For me, my blog serves as an intellectual grist mill, albeit a relatively inefficient one. I’ve got to go now and figure out where this goes from here.

One thought on “The Psychology of Entertainment: The Genotype of Art and the Phenotype of Entertainment

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Social: Are We Hardwired to Use Social Media? | Out of My Gord

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