Some time ago, I did an extensive series of posts on the psychology of entertainment. My original goal, however, was to compare entertainment and usefulness in how effective they were in engendering long-term loyalty. How do our brains process both? And, to return to my original intent, in that first post almost 4 years ago, how does this impact digital trends and their staying power?
My goal is to find out why some types of entertainment have more staying power than other types. And then, once we discover the psychological underpinnings of entertainment, lets look at how that applies to some of the digital trends I disparaged: things like social networks, micro-blogging, mobile apps and online video. What role does entertainment play in online loyalty? How does it overlap with usefulness? How can digital entertainment fads survive the novelty curse and jump the chasm to a mainstream trends with legs?
In the previous set of posts, I explored the psychology of entertainment extensively, ending up with a discussion of the evolutionary purpose of entertainment. My conclusion was that entertainment lived more in the phenotype than the genotype. To save you going back to that post, I’ll quickly summarize here: the genotype refers to traits actually encoded in our genes through evolution – the hardwired blueprint of our DNA. The phenotype is the “shadow” of these genes – behaviors caused by our genetic blueprints. Genotypes are directly honed by evolution for adaptability and gene survival. Phenotypes are by-products of this process and may confer no evolutionary advantage. Our taste for high-fat foods lives in the genotype – the explosion of obesity in our society lives in the phenotype.
This brings us to the difference between entertainment and usefulness – usefulness relies on mechanisms that predominately live in the genotype. In the most general terms, it’s the stuff we have to do to get through the day. And to understand how we approach these things on our to-do list, it’s important to understand the difference between autotelic and exotelic activities.
Autotelic activities are the things we do for the sheer pleasure of it. The activity is it’s own reward. The word autotelic is Greek for “self + goal” – or “having a purpose in and not apart from itself.” We look forward to doing autotelic things. All things that we find entertaining are autotelic by nature.
Exotelic activities are simply a necessary means to an end. They have no value in and of themselves. They’re simply tasks – stuff on our to do list.
The brain, when approaching these two types of activities, treats them very differently. Autotelic activities fire our reward center – the nucleus accumbens. They come with a corresponding hit of dopamine, building repetitive patterns. We look forward to them because of the anticipation of the reward. They typically also engage the prefrontal medial cortex, orchestrating complex cognitive behaviors and helping define our sense of self. When we engage in an autotelic activity, there’s a lot happening in our skulls.
Exotelic activities tend to flip the brain onto its energy saving mode. Because there is little or no neurological reward in these types of activities (other than a sense of relief once they’re done) they tend to rely on the brain’s ability to store and retrieve procedures. With enough repetition, they often become habits, skipping the brain’s rational loop altogether.
In the next post, we’ll look at how the brain tends to process exotelic activities, as it provides some clues about the loyalty building abilities of useful sites or tools. We’ll also look at what happens when something is both exotelic and autotelic.