Stopped in Your Tracks

One scientist takes the measure of our amazement

By Kelly Dickerson, published on July 1, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A mesmerizing work of art, an unbelievable story, a nail-biter of a basketball game—some things are just naturally captivating. Why these, though, and not the drying of paint? In Riveted, Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University, proposes four overarching characteristics of the things that enthrall us.

  1. People are fascinated by other people, so most things we find compelling have a human element. This is often why we feel so enthralled by fictional characters, and why the finale of a favorite TV show can feel like the end of a real-life relationship. Religions enlist this affinity to make their teachings more accessible, Davies says, by assigning "human-like qualities and characteristics to god-like entities."
  2. Feelings of hope and fear command attention. This is one way the evening news keeps us tuned in. A broadcast often starts with a question that arouses fear ("Is drunk driving on the rise?") but follows up with something hopeful (like a program to prevent DUI). The same is true for many belief systems: They balance the fear of what can happen if you don't obey the rules with hope for what can happen if you do.
  3. We fixate on patterns and repetition. Sports capture our attention because they are filled with plays and counter-plays that are both predictable and surprising. "We enjoy these repeated rituals of the game," Davies says. Pattern is a huge part of what makes many other kinds of performance so compelling—think of the repeated beats, melodies, and lyrical phrases on which music is built.
  4. We love an open question. Incongruities are intriguing and compel us to search for explanations. Too much repetition and things get boring. "That's why close games are so much more exciting," Davies says. "You're not going to learn anything watching a game where one team is demolishing the other." It's the same reason we're captivated by movie plots that twist and turn.