Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Kindle edition £9.94 (Amazon)
Gazing at a beautiful view from a log cabin; hearing a ghost story; finding yourself glued to pictures of a pile-up on the motorway; reciting the Lord’s Prayer...
Are these experiences in any way alike?
According to Jim Davies, they are. “Strange as it may seem, compelling things share many similarities.” In this book, Davies claims to do “something that has never been done before”: to show that “the qualities that are common to all these things fit like a key in a lock with our psychological proclivities.” Generalise hypothetically from this commonality and – hey presto – we have a theory.
He calls it the compellingness foundations theory. (The italics are his.)
Nothing as useful as a good theory, I always say. So how useful is this one? Well: quite a lot. Davies – a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science of Carleton University – posits six foundations for compellingness.
I’ll buy four of them.
The first is social compellingness theory. We tend to think that all patterns have something to do with social meaning, intention and agency; and we tend to believe social explanations that we hear from other people. We look for reasons, not causes. Faced with a mysterious or random catastrophe, for example, we assume conscious intent. (Which explains conspiracy theories.) We’re obsessed by status and gossip. We have an unquenchable appetite for stories. (Davies is good on stories, though not quite so good, perhaps, at telling them.)
Secondly, we tend to believe the things we fear or hope are true. Believing in what we fear to be true has evolutionary advantages: it’s safer to believe that the shape in the corner is a man-eater rather than a heap of old clothes. Hope is a little more curious: “one of the ultimate reasons we do anything is so that we will have beliefs that make us happy.” Thus, we prefer landscapes to abstract art; and we find gambling more compelling than regular work because “intermittent reward reinforces behaviour even more strongly than reliable reward”.
Third, “we love patterns and repetition.” We prefer patterns that are easy to understand. And “we are more likely to like and even believe things that we find easy to understand.” This fact triggers some interesting thoughts on music, and especially language: quotations and idioms will stick if they are patterned simply.
And fourth, we are compelled by incongruity, the flip side of pattern-recognition. Incongruity triggers the desire to understand. In fact, “sometimes people like things because they are confusing and hard to understand. To explain this I created the concept of idea effort justification.”
Davies's method in these chapters is breathless and excitable. The connectivity sometimes suffers. He plays the absent-minded professor, tumbling ideas onto the page, disconcertingly switching back and forth between subjects (“Returning to computer game addictions...”; “ let’s get back to miracles...”; “back to the subject...”). With no obvious narrative arc or developing argument, he must rush us from one instant wonder to another to keep us hooked; the result is a kind of attention deficit disorder as we hurry to keep up.
“Meditation sounds relaxing,” pants Davies as we swerve into Buddhism, “but some, this author included, find it more like taking your brain to the gym. It’s hard work.” I can believe it. Nonetheless, those four chapters do provide interesting and useful material. I found myself almost immediately using some of it in my own training work. And Davies is never less than entertaining, despite the helter-skelter approach.
But then his thinking gets worryingly untethered. Where previously he’s tied his account more or less to specific loci of attention – social relationships, fear, hope, patterns and surprises – he now starts to drift around the human body, and to clock up the psychological biases without which no popular account of brain activity seems to be complete. There’s plenty of interest here – we are more likely to give to charity after riding up an escalator than after riding down one, for example – but the links to compellingness are sometimes tenuous. And when it comes to sex – surely the most compelling of all human activities – Davies’s account is oddly dull.
“What I have presented here,” we read at the end of his book, “is not a knock-down set of experiments showing us that all things we love are compelling for the same reasons.” Well: for most of the book, I’d say that’s exactly what he has presented.
By the time I hit the last chapter, I was beginning to wonder whether perhaps Davies’s definition of compellingness was a bit baggy. His theory, after all, is essentially a theory of attention. Some forms of attention are momentary; others have the quality of a lifelong trance. How can we consider, say, the compulsion to watch a fight in the street, and a lifelong devotion to a religion, to be experiences of the same kind?
The theory would need to include some mechanism that links instant focus to permanent belief.
Perhaps the availability cascade can help. Take the news, for example, which worries Davies a good deal. We believe stories rather than statistics; as a result, we believe that the events portrayed in the news are more common than they are, which makes us think that they are important, which fuels our desire to know more about them, which drives further media attention...
Interestingly, Davies suggests that something similar goes on in science. A researcher will submit a paper with unusual findings and suppress the less interesting results (this is the ‘file drawer problem’); and journals prefer to publish ‘significant’ results rather than results backing up previous results. Consequently, compelling scientific findings sometimes win out over accurate ones.
(Which triggers a question about the robustness of Davies’s own hypotheses. If he claims his book to be ‘super lumpy’ – to be principally about what humans have in common rather than how individuals differ – then how many of the very many papers he cites explain common human preferences? How many are survivors of the file drawer problem?)
This last chapter lurches into a completely different register. From explanation, Davies turns to argumentation, engaging in a lengthy quarrel with himself about why religions are so persistently compelling. It's a dangerous rhetorical move and it threatens to destabilise the book completely.
Part of the argument is to compare religion with science. As usual, Davies looks for shared features. “Science and religion,” claims Davies, “have two things in common.” First, both generate beliefs that people endorse or reject. Secondly, both have methods for generating those beliefs: in other words, they have different epistemologies. Science, he concludes, beats religion as a body of knowledge because its epistemology has a built-in self-correcting mechanism that religion lacks. But if you’re looking for beliefs that will help hold a society together, science, by his own admission, has not been so successful.
“Beautiful ideas are not always true,” Davies warns us, “and when we encounter a compelling idea, we must take extra care.” He wants us to “use knowledge of what makes ideas compelling to help us make decisions about what to believe.” It’s a big ask. How do we start?
I think we'd do well to stick to Davies's four really strong ideas.
“Be wary of compelling ideas that are framed in terms of people and relationships, are easy to understand, present an intriguing puzzle, or play to our hope and fears.”
Ok. I’ll try.