Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Off Topic: What makes something interesting?

Interest fuels our desire to learn, but what makes something interesting? 

At some point in our lives, most of us have wondered how we to be appear more interesting. Well here is the answer: coherence, complexity, and contrarianism. Interest is the synthesis of these three key ingredients. For something to be interesting it should be conveyed in a simple and easy to understand manner, while also being, complex ie paint a detailed and vivid picture. It should also be contrarian: it should be something that goes against the grain or has the ability to subvert our expectations.


For instance, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Not from disemboweling Samurai or Kamikaze fighter pilots, but from train commuters. In Tokyo, suicidal citizens were throwing themselves under trains and causing numerous delays. So the stations threatened to fine or sue the families of the felones-de-se if they did it within a certain radius of the stations. This led to the suicidal citizens get off at the first stop outside of Tokyo - and then throw themselves under the train they had just ridden on. [1]

Hopefully, I expressed that elegantly. I suppose you could say that the events in Tokyo are quite complex compared to how you would imagine. The image of Tokyo is contrarian to how we live our own lives and to the image we might have of Japan. What may also surprise you to know is that Japan is not the most suicidal area of Japan and suicide rates have been falling across the country.

Then there is Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer - that assembles iPhone, iPad and MacBooks - whose employees were so suicidal that they put up nets around their factory in Shenzhen because their employees were going up to the roof of the building. And then throwing themselves off. These are things we would baulk at if they happened in the UK. Unfortunately, you can’t always expect interesting to be divorced from morbid and unpleasant, but why are these people choosing to end their own lives en masse? [2]

Tokyo is the epitome of overcrowding. The average commuter spends 67 minutes on a train that carries, many more times the capacity it was designed for. Then there are prices at the entry end of the property market which are rapidly rising. To compound this further, China's social support services are overburdened and there is low awareness of mental health issues. China has equally harsh conditions to the Foxconn factory where employees earned only £1.12 p/h. If the lowest paid workers were to take the full 80 hours per month overtime available they still wouldn’t make enough to have to pay tax. Despite what you might expect, there were up to 3000 unemployed queuing at the factory gates when ABC news arrived to report on the situation.

Human behaviour is often strange, complex and surprising. Yet you regularly hear people suggest that the world is full of unpleasant people. They are wrong. It is easy to do something unpleasant. For example, how many lives did the terrorists take in the 9/11 attacks? 2973 How much money did the hijackers of the 911 flight spend on bullets and plane tickets? Let’s say hypothetically £2,973, a pound per life. How many lives could you save for the same amount of money £2,973? I have honestly no idea, but I bet it’s a hell of a lot less. Right and easy are rarely the same thing but it just goes to show how easy it is to be unkind and how much it is noticed compared to something good. Then there is the issue of how we treat people who have behaved badly?

One way is to put them in prison. After all, if you were surrounded in a room full of murderers, rapists and psychopaths you wouldn’t want to be around them, would you? But what if you still misbehave? Then they put you in solitary. They take you away from the murderers, rapists, and psychopaths. They deprive you of their company as punishment because that is how much we crave human company. Loneliness can be a terrible thing but it’s not the number of people around you that counts: It’s the quality of the relationship you have with them.

What happens, however, when we are nice to people? Here is a quote from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini:

"I know of no better illustration of the way reciprocal obligations can reach long and powerfully into the future than the perplexing story of $5,000 of relief aid that was exchanged between Mexico and Ethiopia. In 1985, Ethiopia could justly lay claim to the greatest suffering and privation in the world. Its economy was in ruin. Its food supply had been ravaged by years of drought and internal war. Its inhabitants were dying by the thousands from disease and starvation. Under these circumstances, I would not have been surprised to learn of a $5,000 relief donation from Mexico to that wrenchingly needy country. I remember my feeling of amazement, though, when a brief newspaper item I was reading insisted that the aid had gone in the opposite direction. Native officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross had decided to send the money to help the victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City.

It is both a personal bane and a professional blessing that whenever I am confused by some aspect of human behavior, I feel driven to investigate further. In this instance, I was able to track down a fuller account of the story. Fortunately,  a journalist who had been as bewildered as I, by the Ethiopians’ actions, had asked for an explanation. The answer he received offered eloquent validation of the reciprocity rule: Despite the enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the money was being sent to Mexico because, in 1935, Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy (“Ethiopian Red Cross,” 1985). So informed, I remained awed,  but I was no longer puzzled. The need to reciprocate had transcended great cultural differences, long distances, acute famine, many years and immediate self-interest. Quite simply, a half-century later, against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed." [3]

So, we can see that people respond appropriately to kindness and unpleasantness. No shocker there, but it's the extent that people go to that surprises.

Aside from the coherence, complexity and contrarian rule for making something interesting what have we learned? That when people are faced with what seem like insurmountable problems they may consider ending it all? That when you treat people with kindness they respond appropriately? That’s not much of a surprise, although, it was interesting. So again the question is why? And the answer is simple. There is a fourth ingredient: emotion. This piece of writing has had both negative and positive elements; although the fourth component isn’t essential it can make a big difference. Alternatively, if surprise is so vital then is it any wonder film, TV companies and writers try to stop spoilers getting out? Well then, consider the spoiler paradox. Research published in the journal Psychological Science indicates that knowing the ending of a story before you read it doesn’t hurt the experience of the story. You are more likely to enjoy the story more than you would otherwise. Who knew? [4] [5]

And if neither surprise nor emotion is essential, and my skills as a writer are certainly not great so there goes coherence, then what is left? Well, the most popular name for a boat in 1996 was Serenity. You may have found that simple little detail interesting but most likely not. Perhaps, it is just down to articulacy: The ability to express complex ideas simply. Or perhaps combinations are the key to unlocking the answer to what makes something interesting.

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