In a world saturated with information, why do some things capture our attention when others simply pass under our radar. What makes a story, a book, a film, art or even an advertisement compelling? How can we know, ahead of time, what will turn us on and keep us hooked?Cognitive scientist Jim Davies explores these questions in his new book, “Riveted,” and offers up a rather interesting explanation based on evolutionary psychology.
Davies proposes that the appeal of many ideas and actions boils down to six key factors: person-centered subject matter, the presence of patterns, incongruity, topics that trigger hope or fear, things related to the body and various psychological tendencies.
Davies argues that one of the distinguishing characteristics of riveting content is its human-centered subject matter. Basically, people love to hear about other people. There’s a social component to this inherent draw, as the “desire for social knowledge is like candy for the brain.”
In fact, the desire is so strong that even content that may not have an actual person involved, but still has human references attracts us. To prove this point, Davies references his own experience watching the animated movie “Finding Nemo”:
“Reflect for a moment on the absurdity of somebody (me) crying over a screen representing fictional fish spawned by computer graphics.” Sure, it may sound ridiculous – a grown man sobbing over the trials of a physically challenged clown fish and his father’s plight to find him – but that is Davies’s point. The film works because it bestows human-qualities on non-human objects – in this case, a small clown fish – and just like that, we can relate.
Another interesting idea that Davies explores is that the brain does not really distinguish between human stories that are true and those that are fabricated.
“If you were to make a completely fictionalized show that resembled Survivor, it would still be really successful,” he argues.
This could help explain the lure of gossip magazines that are so clearly absurd.
Another drawing point of compelling content? It’s ability to evoke fear. Davies maintains that “people have strong negativity bias that makes them pay attention to what appears to be dangerous.” He attributes this to the fact that we are evolutionarily wired to pay attention to potential threats. So when our brains catch wind of something awry, we are instantly hooked.
And here’s yet another catch — our brains cannot distinguish between immediate and distant dangers. “That’s why fear-mongering on the news works,” he explains. “Your brain doesn’t realize that what you’re seeing on The Walking Dead isn’t real. Instead, you start to think about what you would do in a zombie apocalypse.” Without even knowing it, you are preparing “for eventualities that will never come.”
This helps explain why the public is showing a considerable amount of support for military action against ISIS, for example. The terrorist group may not pose an immediate threat to the United States, but it is nearly impossible to convince your brain of that after watching news coverage of the group’s activities.
Davies also says that compelling content plays on our desire for comfort and security.
“People would love to have an easy out for their problems,” Davies relates. And the media and marketers of the world have done a good job of taking advantage of this. “It’s their job to get money out of you by terrifying you or giving you reasons to hope.”
Another factor that makes things gripping? Patterns. Rhymes, symmetry, steady cadence – each are catchy and appealing because they are easy to mentally process and their repetitive sound fits right in with our inherent love of patterns. But while we do inherently like a certain amount of order, Davies argues that it is important to note that we do not like too much. Take a song with no variation in melody. It wouldn’t take too long before we lost interest. Davies explains this with the fact that the brain likes to work to discover the pattern. When there is no challenge, we get bored.
And I’m only brushing the surface. Davies goes on to explore a number of other evolutionary factors that help explain human behavior. Like how we are inherently drawn to watching sports because the competition harks back to the times where combat had real stakes and athletic performance was a demonstration of strength and rank. Or how gossip is essentially recon about others’ values, tendencies or even their weaknesses. And in the end, his hypotheses are, well, compelling. So the next time you find yourself hooked – laughing, crying, fuming or fawning over something – take note. You may just be proving one of Davies’ arguments.