What makes for compelling art? Any creator who has given half a thought to paying the rent, or achieving immortality, has considered what makes art sell. We know that the notion of quality–the idea that “the best” art and marketing and media reaches the most people–is insufficient to explain what gives some creations mass appeal. So why do people–large number of people–find books, ads, movies and art works compelling? How can we know, ahead of time, what will pique our curiosity and sustain our interest? Jim Davies, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Cognitive Science and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory wanted to find out. The result is a theory of compellingness, outlined in his book Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
Davies’s entry point into what makes art riveting, however, did not start with an analysis of best-seller lists or top-40 charts. He came to the question of compellingness through the one thing in human experience that has inspired passionate feelings (good and bad) in the majority of the world’s population: religion. “Unless a religion is compelling in some way, it’s not going to take off,” he says. “Religion has explanations, stories, rituals, and that all caters to our basic psychological proclivities.” Today, he says, we treat old religions, like the Greek myths, as though they are works of art. “Those were stories that people wholeheartedly believed. Even an atheist can look at stories from Bible and admit that they’re good stories.” So what makes religion, and its compelling counterpart, art, truly riveting? And what impact will that have on the way we create and consume culture?
Human drama lies at the heart of Davies’s theory. He says that the “desire for social knowledge is like candy for the brain.” Of course, it’s obvious that we’re drawn to narratives featuring people, but more surprising is the fact that the brain doesn’t really distinguish between human stories that are true and those that are made up. “If you were to make a completely fictionalized show that resembled Survivor, it would still be really successful.” He says The Hunger Games is a perfect illustration of this point. The reason for this is partly linked to plausibility. Not that we expect our society to devolve into a Capitol-like dystopia. But we relate to any characters who function like we do. “If you had two religions to choose from–a god for people and god for antelopes–we’ll find first one more compelling,” Davies says.
He says our draw toward human subjects is so strong that we can see it reflected in the vast majority of the world’s greatest art. In a study of a popular art history text book showcasing 432 of the most important artistic works from prehistoric times through the 20th century, Davies found that 78% of them featured at least one person. Further, 76% of the images showed only people (i.e. lacked animals or other primary objects). We could have predicted that humans would dominate these images, Davies says, but perhaps not the extent to which they sit at the forefront of our artistic imagination.
Davies’s research showed that “people have strong negativity bias that makes them pay attention to what appears to be dangerous.” We are evolutionarily trained to pay attention to potential threats. But here’s the catch: our brains can’t really tell the difference between immediate and distant dangers. “That’s why fear-mongering on the news works,” he says. “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.” Subconsciously, he says, you’re practicing “for eventualities that will never come.” This may be part of the reason that the public is currently showing overwhelming support for military action against ISIS. The terrorist group may not pose any immediate threat to the United States, but try convincing your brain of that after the news coverage of the group’s activities.
In the realm of compellingness, hope isn’t so different from fear. Just look at the multi-billion dollar self-help industry. Books like The Secret and The Four-Hour Work Week play on our desire for safety and security as much as zombies do. “People would love to have an easy out for their problems,” Davies says. And the media and marketers, he says, take good advantage of our weakness. “It’s their job to get money out of you by terrifying you or giving you reasons to hope.” What the public needs, Davies says, is a “psychological immune system” to protect against the darker side of compellingness. In Davies’s own experience, he says “it’s like magic reading the work of great writers. I have to remember to have extremely critical eye. Otherwise I’ll swallow what they say.”
Our brains love two seemingly conflicting states: regularity and incongruity. We love patterns–just look at chart-topping pop hits–but we’re also compelled to find underlying patterns that haven’t been discovered yet. “It’s why magic shows are so interesting,” says Davies. “When you find out how a trick works, you get a rush of pleasure.” But the balance of knowing to not knowing is crucial. “If you understand too much, you grow bored,” he says. For a long time, Davies was an avid X-Files fan. His “mind struggled” to identify the underlying mysteries of the government conspiracies and alien life. Then he watched the movie. “I loved it, but I lost interest in the TV show,” he says. “It tied up too many plot lines.” Even giving this interview made him wary, because “if you give away too much, people won’t want to read the book,” he says. It’s a warning not only to authors and directors not to out their work but to advertisers who risk inundating consumers with information about their products. You know how annoyed you feel after you’ve seen the same Hulu ad 15 times during one show.
Davies’s book is not meant to be a “how-to” manual for artists. He’s not sure it’s even possible to engineer a work of art based on these principles of compellingness. What the book may do, he says, is help creatives “understand the basis of their intuitions.” Maybe understanding what the brain finds compelling will help you know that your novel needs “a dash of fear” or fewer descriptions of antelopes, or a shorter shot of those windy tree branches. Because an info-packed scene isn’t necessarily an interesting one. “There’s an enormous amount of information in a windy tree,” Davies says. “Biological, physical, meteorological. But does it have characters? Does it have conflict?”