Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe

Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe

by Jim Davies


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Why do some things pass under the radar of our attention, but other things capture our interest? Why do some religions catch on and others fade away? What makes a story, a movie, or a book riveting? Why do some people keep watching the news even though it makes them anxious?

The past 20 years have seen a remarkable flourishing of scientific research into exactly these kinds of questions. Professor Jim Davies' fascinating and highly accessible book, Riveted, reveals the evolutionary underpinnings of why we find things compelling, from art to religion and from sports to superstition. Compelling things fit our minds like keys in the ignition, turning us on and keeping us running, and yet we are often unaware of what makes these "keys" fit. What we like and don't like is almost always determined by subconscious forces, and when we try to consciously predict our own preferences we're often wrong. In one study of speed dating, people were asked what kinds of partners they found attractive. When the results came back, the participants' answers before the exercise had no correlation with who they actually found attractive in person! We are beginning to understand just how much the brain makes our decisions for us: we are rewarded with a rush of pleasure when we detect patterns, as the brain thinks we've discovered something significant; the mind urges us to linger on the news channel or rubberneck an accident in case it might pick up important survival information; it even pushes us to pick up People magazine in order to find out about changes in the social structure.

Drawing on work from philosophy, anthropology, religious studies, psychology, economics, computer science, and biology, Davies offers a comprehensive explanation to show that in spite of the differences between the many things that we find compelling, they have similar effects on our minds and brains.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137279019
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 311,438
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jim Davies is a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science of Carleton University, and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory. He has been featured in Skeptic and Nautilus magazines, and has presented at Pecha Kucha Ottawa and TEDx on his theories of imagination. He writes a Psychology Today blog called The Science of Imagination. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Read an Excerpt


The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe

By Jim Davies

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Jim Davies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-43814-0



For all animals, living requires killing.

People, like ocelots, deer, and every other animal, must consume cells that are alive or were once living. In our ancestral environment, it was absolutely crucial that we were able to detect living things in our environments. What's that in front of us? Our minds have complex understandings of basic kinds of things. When we see something new, we quickly try to classify it as alive or not alive. If it's not a plant, it might be another person, friend or foe, or it might be an animal that we might hunt or that might hunt us.

In their natural environments, animals can be difficult to see. When our ancestors saw an ambiguous shape, which might have been a fallen log, or maybe a lion, the ones who erred on the side of caution tended to live to have kids who then inherited, genetically or culturally, the habit of erring on the side of caution. Nobody's going to die because they ran away from a log, thinking it was a lion, but somebody sure might die if they hang around a wolf, thinking it's a pile of leaves. Because it has been safer to assume that ambiguous things are animate, we often mistake inanimate things for animate ones.

Humans, like many of our primate relatives, live in complicated, hierarchical social environments, and have done so at least since the dawn of agriculture. An individual's prosperity requires careful tending to a garden of allies, superiors, rivals, lovers, and enemies. Understanding the structure of one's social surroundings, and one's place in them, is crucial for happiness, reproduction, and even survival.

Understanding one's own personal relationships is social reasoning's simplest form. Even dogs know who their friends are. What is more complicated is knowing relations between two other people, such as the relationship between your friend and her spouse, let alone knowing who else knows about this relationship in your social circle. Think of all of the details a person needs to keep track of in his or her circle of family and friends.

Keeping track of all the social intricacies in a community requires a staggering amount of mental power. Those who could not understand and successfully manipulate their complex social ties were probably taken advantage of, outmaneuvered, and, ultimately, outbred by those that could. The people with social smarts lived. It is likely that the importance of understanding social structure has, through evolution, resulted in a deep-seated, primal desire to pay attention to people and social relationships. Just as roasted meat smells good and safe places feel inviting, relationships between people are inherently, irresistibly interesting.

The thesis of this chapter is the social compellingness theory: our bias to perceive and be interested in people means that information about people and social relationships makes everything more compelling.

The theory has two parts. First, people tend to believe patterns have something to do with social meaning, intention, and agency. Sometimes this is called "agenticity," the "hypertrophy of social cognition," an "overactive theory of mind," the "hypersensitive/hyperactive agency detection device," or "anthropomorphism." This is what happens when one sees a face on a Martian mountain or thinks that lightning is thrown by an angry god.

When you see something that has the potential to be very good or bad for you, such as a lion or another person, your mind goes through a series of processes. Your attention is drawn to what you see, and you think less about other things. You actively seek more information, through eye movements or by getting a better vantage point. You might have an emotional response, such as fear, anger, or desire. You might make plans, just in case.

But for human beings, this instinct goes beyond mere animism, that is, ascribing life to something that isn't alive, such as thinking that a log is a lion. Not only are we hypersensitive to detecting life and animate creatures, but we are hypersensitive to the presence of other people — human beings with minds.

Second, social explanations that we hear from other people are more believable. That is, explanations couched in terms of people and their interactions just feel right. When we hear about characters with desires, it resonates with something deep within us. For example, in an economic downturn, an explanation that places blame on a few people can be more believable than an explanation involving chaotic market fluctuations, because it is natural for us to see things happening as a result of human action. When soldiers torture, we find blaming a few bad eggs more satisfying than examining systemic problems that encourage certain behaviors.

According to social compellingness theory, we perceive people where there are no people and we prefer social explanations. So, how does social compellingness affect our love for the visual arts?

My friend Daniel Thompson is an artists' model. He poses so people can sketch him. For a while he brought his dog Phoebe along with him. He said the artists liked that; they would sometimes sketch Phoebe "as a palette cleanser" or might sketch the dog after they sketched him. But they never opted to sketch only his dog.

An art historian told me once that if you look across the arts of different ages and cultures, you find no common characteristics. I countered that nearly all of them feature representations of people, especially people's faces. If you walk through any art museum, the proportion of works featuring images of people is remarkable. Why should our species get such better coverage than dogs? Social compellingness theory predicts that we are very interested in people and the relationships between them. People like pictures of people and find them more memorable. For the visual arts, this means lots and lots of pictures and sculptures of human beings. Ptarmigans do not pay commissions. It would be a very different world if they did.

Exactly how much do people dominate artistic depictions? I asked Carleton University art history student Rebecca Frerotte to record how many people were depicted in each individual work of art found in a large art history book, Art Past, Art Present. Although I will use the word paintings as shorthand in this discussion, the book contained works of art in various media. Of the 420 paintings in the book, 333 had at least one person depicted. There were over three times as many paintings featuring people, at least for artworks famous enough to be included in an art history book.

We can predict more than this, however. We should see more paintings with low numbers of people in them than high numbers. One reason to expect this is because it's easier to paint one person than groups. This is also true for films, where casting is expensive. Second, the more people present, the harder it is to have a meaningful conversation. As you might have noticed at dinner parties, the maximum group size for a single face-to-face conversation is around five. Assuming people are often attracted to decently sized conversational groups, we would predict that visual works of art would have between one and four people in them (four plus the viewer makes five).

The third reason we'd expect low numbers of people in paintings is because of our ability to do something called subitization. Subitization is the ability to rapidly know how many things are in front of us, without counting. Most people cannot reliably subitize more than four objects. Things that are more easily processed are more pleasing to us, a notion I will discuss in detail in chapter 3. For paintings, people should prefer paintings with a subitizable number of people in them.

For all these reasons, I predicted that the greatest number of paintings will have one person in them and for the distribution to sharply taper off at four or five people. The data support this as well: 116 depicted a single person, 48 had two people, 26 had three, and it trailed off from there.

The next time you visit an art museum, you can marvel at how exquisitely adapted the artwork is for human consumption. Museums are full of people looking at people.

Group dancing, a kind of participatory art, is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon. People get together and dance together, ecstatically. It could be that group dancing (and for the military, synchronous drilling and marching) is an innate binding mechanism for groups. In David Byrne's book How Music Works, he describes a similar effect caused by playing with a large band:

The band became a more abstract entity, a community. And while individual band members might shine and take virtuosic turns, their identities became submerged within the group. It might seem paradoxical, but the more integral everyone was, the more everyone gave up some individuality and surrendered to the music. ... As I experienced it, this was not just a musical transformation, but also a psychic one. The nature of the music helped, but partly it was the very size of the band that allowed me, even as lead singer, to lose myself and experience a kind of ecstatic release.

Social compellingness theory predicts that narrative arts will also usually be about people and the relationships between them. We can have nonrepresentational art that does not depict people, but it is difficult to even describe what a narrative is without reference to characters. Our interests in fiction reflect our interests in real life. For example, just as we're interested in the making and breaking of friendships and romantic relationships between our real-life peers, a casual look at fiction reveals endless stories about friends and lovers. Cross-culturally, the most common narrative themes are love and conflicts between people.

It makes sense that we care about the real people around us, but do we really care about people we know are fictitious? We certainly do. In the Western world, people spend an enormous amount of leisure time watching television and movies, reading books, and playing computer games, which mostly consist of stories about fictional characters. In fact, people will spend more time reading a text they believe to be fiction than the same text when they believe it to be nonfiction, suggesting that people are even more interested in fictional characters than stories about real people!

Not only are we interested in fiction, but we can be profoundly moved by it. People experience a range of real sensations from the shallow titillation of pornography to the soul-wrenching pathos of Life Is Beautiful.

When we experience a fictional narrative, the old brain and the new can give us different experiences. As described in the introduction, we are of two minds; we have "double knowledge." One part of our mind knows it's fiction, but much of our mind does not. Our emotional areas have very direct ties to these old brain areas, which explains why we can have such strong emotional reactions to books and movies. We take information in, and the critical evaluator (which determines whether or not what we're experiencing is real) and the emotional response run in parallel. This is why your deliberate mind can mitigate, but not eliminate completely, the fear response to a horror film by telling yourself "it's only a movie."

This is also why we can get so attached to characters. In our minds, we feel we have become a part of the community we're experiencing in the narrative, even if they're vampires or wizards. When we think that beloved television characters are going to leave a show, we anticipate negative reactions similar to what we'd expect to feel upon the dissolution of a social relationship.

It turns out that our tendency to believe things we've heard to be true is old and a fundamental part of our minds. When we hear a statement, we believe it by default. When someone tells us they have had their colon removed, do we believe them? Unless we think of a reason to doubt people, we assume what they say is true. Even when we know that we have been misled, that misinformation can still affect our reasoning, and we might act as though we still think it is true. Skepticism and the ability to critically evaluate and disbelieve probably came later in evolution. Disbelief is cognitively taxing, an afterthought that we often don't bother with.

We evolved to believe stories told to us, so at least a part of our minds treats heard stories as factual. We do this to gain knowledge about the world, and the emotional responses we have to many stories make them more meaningful to us. This is why we get weepy watching The Notebook.

If the origin of our affinity for stories comes from the drive to learn useful information, then it follows that the most compelling stories would be about subjects most relevant to the prosperity and reproduction of our ancestors. For example, stories about people like you should be more compelling to you, because they are presumably more relevant. Indeed, identification with the protagonist has been found to increase the degree of emotion experienced while reading stories, and, as mentioned in the introduction, news stories tend to be about evolutionarily relevant topics.

What kinds of things are we learning from stories?

Most narratives involve conflict between people, which resembles the environment we navigate in our real lives every day. Just as we strive to understand the minds of the real people around us, comprehending narratives requires simulating the complex social information they describe. Narratives can be seen as a primitive kind of virtual reality, making us forget our physical surroundings and feel as though we are transported into the world described by the novel, play, story, computer game, or film.

If you doubt the ubiquity of character interaction in narrative, I challenge you to make a compelling story about rocks and other nonliving things — without anthropomorphizing them. Fantasy stories imbue animals and inanimate objects with human goals, intentions, and personalities. Their bodies might be different, but inside they are people, and as audiences we interpret them in this way. In one experiment by psychologist Ute Frith, squares and circles were presented to people, moving in certain ways. They were interpreted by the experimental participants as chasing each other, hiding, fighting, and so on. Viewing these episodes activates the same part of the brain as when people are trying to understand the thoughts and motivations of others. That said, we do prefer actual social beings to simulated ones. (Earlier I mentioned that we prefer fictional stories to true ones — keep in mind, though, that even a character in a nonfiction story is simulated. The story might be about a flesh-and-blood person, but the reader is only experiencing a description in a book.) As wild and unrealistic as the worlds conjured by authors of fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction might be, nearly all describe characters that are psychologically realistic.

Some authors, such as Stanislaw Lem, deliberately try to buck this trend and introduce psychology that is completely alien to our own. Lem's fascinating novel Solaris depicts an alien entity that is completely incomprehensible to the reader. However, the novel also depicts human characters, who help us appreciate the alien's alienness through their own, equally baffled eyes.

Religion, like most fiction, imposes humanlike minds onto its characters, even if those characters are gods. Science, and especially science education, faces the daunting challenge of convincing people of the value of its stories, such as the origin of the universe, natural history, gene expression, and geological history. These stories are about true nonpersons, such as tectonic plates. Educators often need to communicate processes and sequences of events that superficially resemble stories but essentially have no characters. One way to deal with this problem is to anthropomorphize nonsentient things into real characters with beliefs and desires. For example, one might describe rain as wanting to find the easiest route down a mountain.

Even when communicating with each other, scientists use language rife with anthropomorphic metaphor. Stewart Guthrie's book Faces in the Clouds has a whole chapter full of examples. He even attributes part of the success of Charles Darwin's theory, in its time, to his anthropomorphic language — for example, his use of the word selection — which allowed Christians to read an intelligent designer into his theory of evolution. Without characters, it might not even make sense to call these scientific explanations stories at all. But in the marketplace of ideas, they certainly compete with other explanations that are stories. I suspect that the lack of drama in scientific narrative explanation is one reason religious explanations can resonate with people so much more effectively. Worldwide, supernatural explanations overwhelmingly involve personified goddesses, gods, and spirits, all of whom have desires, personalities, and beliefs.


Excerpted from Riveted by Jim Davies. Copyright © 2014 Jim Davies. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Hardwiring for Socializing 23

2 Wizard's First Rule: Hope and Fear's Anti-Sweet Spot 57

3 The Thrill of Discovering Patterns 81

4 Incongruity: Absurdism, Mystery, and Puzzle 109

5 Our Biological Nature 145

6 Our Psychological Biases 173

7 Why We Get Riveted 205

More Sources of Interestingness 241

Acknowledgments 242

Notes 243

Index 274

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