You’ll quickly come up with a justification for denying it, but your response to a story is influenced far more by other people’s responses to it than by your moment-to-moment experience of reading or watching it. The impression that we either enjoy an experience or we don’t, that our enjoyment or disappointment emerges directly from the scenes, sensations, and emotions of the production itself, results from our cognitive blindness to several simultaneously active processes that go into our final verdict. We’re only ever aware of the output of the various algorithms, never the individual functions.
None of us, for instance, directly experiences the operation of what psychologist and marketing expert Robert Cialdini calls social proof, but its effects on us are embarrassingly easy to measure. Even the way we experience pain depends largely on how we perceive others to be experiencing it. Subjects receiving mild shocks not only report them to be more painful when they witness others responding to them more dramatically, but they also show physiological signs of being in greater distress.
Cialdini opens the chapter on social proof in his classic book Influence: Science and Practice by pointing to the bizarre practice of setting television comedies to laugh tracks. Most people you talk to will say canned laughter is annoying—and they’ll emphatically deny the mechanically fake chuckles and guffaws have any impact on how funny the jokes seem to them. The writers behind those jokes, for their part, probably aren’t happy about the implicit suggestion that their audiences need to be prompted to laugh at the proper times. So why do laugh tracks accompany so many shows? “What can it be about canned laughter that is so attractive to television executives?” Cialdini asks.
Another factor that complicates our responses to stories is that, unlike momentary shocks or the telling of jokes, they usually last long enough to place substantial demands on working memory. Movies last a couple hours. Novels can take weeks. What this means is that when we try to relate to someone else what we thought of a movie or a book we’re relying on a remembered abstraction as opposed to a real-time recording of how much we enjoyed the experience. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests that our memories of experiences can diverge so much from our feelings at any given instant while actually having those experiences that we effectively have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. To illustrate, he offers the example of a man who complains that a scratch at the end of a disc of his favorite symphony ruined the listening experience for him.“But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it,” Kahneman points out. “The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened” (381). But the distinction usually only becomes apparent when the two selves disagree—and such disagreements usually require some type of objective recording to discover. Kahneman explains,
Kahneman reports the results of a landmark study he designed with Don Redelmeier that compared moment-to-moment pain recordings of men undergoing colonoscopies to global pain assessments given by the patients after the procedure. The outcome demonstrated that the remembering self was remarkably unaffected by the duration of the procedure or the total sum of pain experienced, as gauged by adding up the scores given moment-to-moment during the procedure. Men who actually experienced more pain nevertheless rated the procedure as less painful when the discomfort tapered off gradually as opposed to dropping off precipitously after reaching a peak. The remembering self is reliably guilty of what Kahneman calls “duration neglect,” and it assesses experiences based on a “peak-end rule,” whereby the “global retrospective rating” will be “well predicted by the average level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end” (380). Duration neglect and the peak-end rule probably account for the greater risk of addiction for users of certain drugs like heroine or crystal meth, which result in rapid, intense highs and precipitous drop-offs, as opposed to drugs like marijuana whose effects are longer-lasting but less intense.
We’ve already seen that pain in real time can be influenced by how other people are responding to it, and we can probably extrapolate and assume that the principle applies to pleasurable experiences as well. How does the divergence between experience and memory factor into our response to stories as expressed by our decisions about further reading or viewing, or in things like reviews or personal recommendations? For one thing, we can see that most good stories are structured in a way that serves not so much as a Jamesian “direct impression of life,”i.e. as reports from the experiencing self, but much more like the tamed abstractions Stevenson described in his “Humble Remonstrance” to James. As Kahneman explains,
Taken to its extreme, this focus on social proof leads to what’s known as social constructivism. In the realm of stories, this would be the idea that there are no objective criteria at all with which to assess merit; it’s all based on popular opinion or the dictates of authorities. Much of the dissatisfaction with the so-called canon is based on this type of thinking. If we collectively decide some work of literature is really good and worth celebrating, the reasoning goes, then it magically becomes really good and worth celebrating. There’s an undeniable kernel of truth to this—and there’s really no reason to object to the idea that one of the things that makes a work of art attention-worthy is that a lot of people are attending to it. Art serves a social function after all; part of the fun comes from sharing the experience and having conversations about it. But I personally can’t credit the absolutist version of social constructivism. I don’t think you’re anything but a literary tourist until you can make a convincing case for why a few classics don’t deserve the distinction—even though I acknowledge that any such case will probably be based largely on the ideas of other people.
The research on the experiencing versus the remembering self also suggests a couple criteria we can apply to our assessments of stories so that they’re more meaningful to people who haven’t been initiated into the society and culture of highbrow literature. Too often, the classics are dismissed as works only English majors can appreciate. And too often, they're written in a way that justifies that dismissal. One criterion should be based on how well the book satisfies the experiencing self: I propose that a story should be considered good insofar as it induces a state of absorption. You forget yourself and become completely immersed in the plot. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state flow, and has found that the more time people spend in it the happier and more fulfilled they tend to be. But the total time a reader or viewer spends in a state of flow will likely be neglected if the plot never reaches a peak of intensity, or if it ends on note of tedium. So the second criterion should be how memorable the story is. Assessments based on either of these criteria are of course inevitably vulnerable to social proof and idiosyncratic factors of the individual audience member (whether I find Swann’s Way tedious or absorbing depends on how much sleep and caffeine I’ve had). And yet knowing what the effects are that make for a good aesthetic experience, in real time and in our memories, can help us avoid the trap of merely academic considerations. And knowing that our opinions will always be somewhat contaminated by outside influences shouldn’t keep us from trying to be objective any more than knowing that surgical theaters can never be perfectly sanitized should keep doctors from insisting they be as well scrubbed and scoured as possible.