The roots of compulsion

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

Jim Davies

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

ISBN: 9781137279019

£14.44 (Amazon)

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.)

1239177_10100579883092241_2012323786_oNothing 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. 

Shutterstock_59584435BuddhaWEB-ONLY-676x450“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. 

Video-undefined-21FB080000000578-671_636x358By 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...

HistogramInterestingly, 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.




That Jubilee sermon

I’ve been wondering whether I should post this.  Be warned: what follows is a rather dense (and long) analysis of a sermon.




Yes, really.



Article-2154808-137524A7000005DC-872_634x909I watched with interest Dr Rowan Williams speak at the Jubilee service on Monday, 4 June.  (I was really watching for the magnificent music, and caught the sermon by the way...)  I have enormous respect for Dr Williams; and the theme of his sermon warmed my heart.

But I couldn’t help feeling that there was a point when the congregation almost visibly switched off.  And I could feel it happening myself. 

What was going wrong?  Could we work out, technically, how the sermon’s rhetoric was failing? And what could we learn about good speaking from this sermon, delivered by a man of such taste and deep intellect?


OK.  Here goes. 

Structurally, the sermon observes the divisions of a classical oration rather well: I’ve marked in the text below the approximate positions of exordium, narration, division, proof, refutation and peroration.  I’ve marked the approximate places of the section breaks in the text below. 


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Some words from St Paul: ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.’ 

[Exordium: where the speaker sets the scene, grabs the audiences attention and makes an ethical appeal, based on shared values or reputation]

Dr+Rowan+Williams+Diamond+Jubilee+Service+q-wQnwYRqVqlThere will be other occasions to remember the splendour and the drama of the Coronation; today’s focus is different. What we remember is the simple statement of commitment made by a very young woman, away from home, suddenly and devastatingly bereaved, a statement that she would be there for those she governed, that she was dedicating herself to them. 

[A brilliant opening: the contrast of the splendour and drama of the coronation with the solitary crisis facing a very young woman; the contrast also of the abstract (splendour, drama) with the personal and concrete (a very young woman, away from home), that focuses our imaginations at once on an emotionally powerful image. 

Stylistically, we notice the tying together of the images with the repeated word ‘statement’; the climax (almost) on the idea of dedication.  Which is picked up and amplified powerfully at the very start of the next paragraph.]

 ‘Dedication’ is a word that has come to mean rather less than it used to.

[A careful understatement – litotes, in rhetorical lingo – that alerts us to the prospect of something intellectually significant to come – unsurprisingly, to those of us who know something of Williams’ intellectual background and interests.]

Kinks-dedicated-follower-of-fashionThose of us who belong to the same generation as Her Majesty’s older children will recall a sixties song about a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ – as though to be ‘dedicated’ just meant to be very enthusiastic.

[Here’s the ethical appeal, precisely placed just where it should be, in the exordium: the unhip hip reference, almost obligatory in a sermon. (Think of Alan Bennett’s ‘life is rather like opening a can of sardines’...)  It won a wry smile from the Prince of Wales, at least.]

But in the deep background of the word is the way it is used in classical and biblical language: in this context, to be ‘dedicated’ is to be absolutely removed from other uses, being completely available to God.

[Narration: where the speaker sets out the main argument] 

[Ah.   To our theme: plunging deep into a metaphysical concept.  The corner isn’t turned entirely neatly: notice the verbiage of ‘is the way it is used’, and ‘in this context’: detracting from the deep meaning of the word rather than illuminating it.]


And so to be dedicated to the good of a community – in this case both a national and an international community – is to say, ‘I have no goals that are not the goals of this community; I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community. What will make me content or happy is what makes for the good of this particular part of the human family.’


[And the going, suddenly, gets very tough.  Double negatives (‘I have no goals that are not..’) always seem hard for an audience to navigate; the repetition should help, but somehow it doesn’t.  And the double negatives are bolted onto an abstraction: the word ‘community’, with all its connotations of vague liberal values unrooted in any particular group of people.  Ironic that Dr Williams uses the word ‘particular’ a little later.  His language at this point is distinctly unparticular.

We are ascending the foothills of abstraction.]

It is an ambitious, even an audacious thing to aim at.

[So now we have to remember, if we can, what ‘it’ is. Dr Williams doesn’t help: he calls it a ‘thing’.  The only help we get is the image of aiming, which refers us back to the goals he mentioned earlier.]

[Division, where the speaker sets out different areas of the main theme, where we agree and where others might disagree]

It is, of course, no more so than the ideals set before all Christians who try to model their lives on what St Paul says about life in the Body of Christ.

[And what are those ideals?  What does St Paul say about life in the body of Christ? After that long and rather complex passage – read extremely well by David Cameron – can we remember?]

 That doesn’t make it any easier to grasp or to live out;

[Well, no; I suppose it wouldn’t; at least, I would suppose so, if I were keeping up...]

... but the way St Paul approaches it should help us see that we’re not being encouraged to develop a self-punishing attitude, relentlessly denying our own goals or our own flourishing for the sake of others.

[Oh gosh.  We’re *not* being encouraged to do – what?]

What’s put before us is a genuine embrace of those others, a willingness to be made happy by the well-being of our neighbours. 

[An embrace being put before us...?  But the word 'neighbours’ is extremely useful.]

Article-1338912667016-1375D96D000005DC-766482_568x373‘Outdo one another in showing honour’, says St Paul. Compete with each other only in the generous respect you show to one and all; because in learning that respect you will find delight in one another. You will begin to discover that the other person is a source of nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge. And if we broaden this out to an entire community, a nation, a commonwealth, it means discovering that it is always in an ever-widening set of relations that we become properly ourselves.

[This struck home with me very forcibly – despite the list of abstract nouns (‘nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge’)  The main idea is placed – reasonably simply – at the end of a long sentence, leavened with a tricolon (‘community... nation... commonwealth’).  There’s a hint of a paradox in that final idea that, for me, is very powerful.]

Dedication to the service of a community certainly involves that biblical sense of an absolute purge of selfish goals, but it is also the opening of a door into shared riches.

[A much neater antithesis than we’ve heard so far.  The sonic power of ‘selfish goals ... shared riches’ works very well, too.]

[Proof: where the speaker nails the case down with argument.  Here, the argument is from example: the central example of the monarch’s own dedication]

Article-2154808-1375238C000005DC-921_634x399I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race. She has made her ‘public’ happy and all the signs are that she is herself happy, fulfilled and at home in these encounters.

The same, of course, can manifestly be said of Prince Philip; and our prayers and thoughts are very much with him this morning. To declare a lifelong dedication is to take a huge risk, to embark on a costly venture. But it is also to respond to the promise of a vision that brings joy.

[Suddenly this is working, though not perhaps entirely as Dr Williams would want it to.  As we listen, we’re invited to co-create the meaning of this image. 

Have we noticed ‘all the signs’ (how oddly technical that phrase is, as if we’re discussing the weather or the state of the stock market) that Her Majesty is herself happy (happy??), fulfilled and at home (at home??)? 

The big idea is expressed, finally, with a powerful antithesis, and a rich clash of metaphors: the economic image of a ‘huge risk’ and ‘a costly venture’ giving way to the spiritual image of answering a promise, responding to a vision and finding joy.]

And perhaps that is the challenge that this Jubilee sets before us in nation and Commonwealth. St Paul implies that we should be so overwhelmed by the promise of a shared joy far greater than narrow individual fulfilment, that we find the strength to take the risks and make the sacrifices – even if this seems to reduce our individual hopes of secure enjoyment.

Article-1338913129146-1375C76C000005DC-110211_568x370[Oh dear.  This, I think, is where the congregation finally lost it.  It takes no more than a single sentence.

We’re bombarded with  nominalisations: ‘challenge’, ‘promise’, ‘joy’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘strength’, ‘risk’, ‘sacrifices’, ‘hopes’, ‘enjoyment’ Nothing rooted to any real experience.  And that second sentence is 47 words long.]

Moralists (archbishops included) can thunder away as much as they like; but they’ll make no difference unless and until people see that there is something transforming and exhilarating about the prospect of a whole community rejoicing together – being glad of each other’s happiness and safety.

[‘Thundering’ is good; but what might they be thundering about?  The mist thickens: ‘something transforming and exhilarating’ – what kind of something?  And the word ‘prospect’ is vague: what is it?  A sight?  A vision? A promised future event, perhaps?  And what on earth does ‘being glad of each other’s happiness and safety’ actually mean?]

[Refutation: smashing the counter-positions]

This alone –

[What?  What alone?]

... is what will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal – and many more things that we see far too much of, around us and within us.

Daily_Mail[This is the passage that infuriated the tabloid press.  It did indeed stand out starkly.  Partly, the success of the moment is that it’s well placed: it arrives as the climax of the sermon, just when the refutation is needed.

And it starts so well: the physical image of being saved from a set of traps.

The first trap makes a real impression: that startlingly un-sermonish ‘ludicrous’ and that unequivocal,   simple ‘greed’.  But that last term in the list of three dispels all the power generated at the start, with its repeated ‘collective’s and the totally unmusical ‘the unsuccessful and marginal’. Abstract terms again – as if we daren’t actually name these people.    


And how ironic that the next day we heard about very real, unsuccessful, marginal people being treated with utter  contempt on the very shores of the ‘chartered Thames’, underneath London Bridge...]



[Peroration: the grand finale, in which the speaker sums up the case, reiterates the strongest points and makes the pathetic appeal – the appeal to the emotions] 

One crucial aspect of discovering such a vision – and many still do discover it in their service of others, despite everything –is to have the stories and examples available that show it’s possible.

[Note the awkwardness of the interpolation. Note the vagueness of ‘one crucial aspect of discovering’ – not to mention ‘ to have the stories and examples available that show’.  These constructions, so tangled, so inelegant, do the speaker’s magnificent intellect absolutely no favours.]

Article-2154783-13757D85000005DC-644_964x473Thank God, there are many wonderful instances lived out unobtrusively throughout the country and the Commonwealth. But we are marking today the anniversary of one historic and very public act of dedication – a dedication that has endured faithfully, calmly and generously through most of the adult lives of most of us here.


[Ah. At last the temperature rises a notch.  From the unobtrusive to the very public; from one ‘dedication’ to its repetition leading a tricolon of emotional adjectives: ‘faithfully, calmly and generously’.]

We are marking six decades of living proof that public service is possible and that it is a place where happiness can be found.

[Spendid sentiments, but again – how tangled the syntax.]

To seek one’s own good and one’s own well-being in the health of the community is sacrificially hard work – but it is this search that is truly natural to the human heart.

[Williams usefully ties his ideas back to the earlier notion that selfhood finds it truest expression in community – and the even earlier mention of sacrifice that he quoted from St Paul at the very start.]

That’s why it is not a matter of tight-lipped duty or grudging compliance with someone else’s demands. Jesus himself says ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me’, and that’s what is at the heart of real dedication.

[The quotation seems to have little to do with what precedes it.  Duty and compliance giving way to – food?  The quotation is cryptic: what is at the heart of real dedication?]

This year has already seen a variety of Jubilee creations and projects. But its most lasting memorial would be the rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and the public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.

[More tangled syntax.  And the rebirth of that generous spirit seems to lose all its life in the switchbacks of ‘less than human’ and ‘if we think just of’.]

Article-1355376-0C93E761000005DC-813_306x423Listen again for a moment to St Paul. ‘We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us … the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness … Outdo one another in showing honour … extend hospitality to strangers … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another … take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’

[Yes, splendid text.  Perhaps this is Dr Williams’ attempt to use St Paul to rouse the emotions.

The problem is that we’ve already heard it.  All of it.]


Dedication to the health and well-being of a community is all this and more.

[All what and more? – just remind me again.]

May we be given the grace to rediscover this as we give thanks today for Her Majesty’s sixty years of utterly demanding yet deeply joyful service.

[And although that ‘utterly demanding yet deeply joyful’ has a fine ring, the music is ruined by the word ‘service’ with its dying fall at the end of the sentence.  The best hope for an emotional kick is in that word ‘joyful’.  What if it came at the end of the sentence?  Imagine:

“... as we give thanks today for Her Majesty’s sixty years of service: service that has shown itself to be utterly demanding, yet deeply joyful.”]

Conclusion: the sermon too often fails to lift off the page.  Too many abstractions, too many sequences of four or more elements, sentences that are too complicated, constructions that double back on themselves.  This is, in the end, a text that has been written to be read, not to be spoken.