The evolutionary underpinnings of why we are attracted to some things, yet repelled by others.
During a competitive basketball game, what keeps us glued to the television screen? Why are we struck by the beautiful mountain view from a cabin?
We may feel that our answers to these questions are highly personal, but science increasingly shows that the things we find compelling share many similarities at their core. Those riveting qualities include such things as incongruity, patterns and people.
In his new book Riveted, Jim Davies reveals the evolutionary underpinnings that drive us to be attracted to, or repelled by, things in our world.
Here, seven quirks of our brains that explain what rivets us, and why.
We are drawn to the order and predictability of patterns, but we also like to be challenged. “Too little order is confusing, too much order is boring. The sweet spot is that area where tantalizing contradictions are visible, but the stimulus gives us an inkling of a hidden order that can be figured out,” Davies writes.
Although our minds always want to minimize surprise and confusion, we’ll grow rather bored without a little disruption to our patterns. Most people prefer designs that are rather conventional, but include just one unusual feature.
It’s common to have a dream where we find a door in a familiar place, and upon opening it we find ourselves in a completely unfamiliar room we’ve never seen before. Subconsciously, we’re drawn to scenes that hint to us that there’s more. We have an instinctual urge to explore the unknown.
“When we walk by and can see through the doorway that there is only a single room beyond, we are less likely to enter the room than if that room contains a door or a wall that might be hiding another passage,” Davies writes.
Architects and interior designers intentionally use these strategies to create buildings that beg people to explore them.
The allure of incongruity may explain some of the strange and exotic cuisine enjoyed by cultures around the world. “Sixteenth-century Europeans developed a taste for meat that was just this side of rotting, based on what they thought the peoples of ancient Rome and Greece ate,” Davies writes.
Some foods, such as a spicy Thai dish, release mood-lifting endorphins when we consume them. When it comes to eating rotting meat, we may be demonstrating our mastery of mind over matter.
When we’re sad, we feel down. But if we’re in a good mood, things are on the “up and up.” But what the heck does direction have to do with our emotional state? Davies says it may relate to the way humans perceive the difference between life and death.
“An evolutionary explanation is that when people are standing upright, they are more likely to be awake, healthy, and, most importantly, alive. When they are bent over or down on the ground they are more likely to be sleeping, sick, or dead.”
We love to keep things clean, because over time we evolved a psychological aversion to contagion. But at times our cleanliness trait overrides common sense.
Not only do we not want to be around obviously sick people, but we don’t even want to touch the things certain non-contagious people have touched. It's a phenomenon termed “magical contagion.” Studies have found that people have an aversion to washed clothing worn by murderers, and that they don’t want an AIDS patient to occupy a hospital bed after they’ve left it — implying a belief in causality, which goes, weirdly, backward through time.
After black and white, the most common color term is red. If a language has just three color terms, those colors will be black, white and red, according to Davies. Infants detect darkness levels first, then reds. Red is the last color to go and the first to return when people who lose their eyesight.
“Of all the colors, red evokes the strongest emotional reactions. For all these reasons, I conjecture that black, white, and red are the most powerful colors in art,” Davies writes.
In Western culture, we have a strong preference for things that move from the left to the right. From plays to sporting events, things that move from left to right are seen as more appealing.
“A study by psychologist Anne Maas found that sportscasters considered goals scored left to right in the visual field to be stronger, faster, and more beautiful. The same result was found, with smaller effects, for violence in fight scenes,” Davies writes.
Davies says this has to do with the way we read and write English — from left to right.