Marvel Films
Source: Marvel Films

Blockbuster season is upon us. And when we look at the slate of movies coming out, there is the usual collection of sequels. Even movies that aren’t direct descendants of previous films still touch on similar themes, like World War II or superheroes.

It turns out that the major Hollywood studios have learned something that most people don’t know.

An interesting paper by Gus Cooney, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson in the March, 2017 issue of Psychological Science examines people’s predictions about whether other people will like new stories or familiar stories. In one study, groups of three participants came to the lab, where they were assigned the role of speaker (one participant) or listener (two participants). All participants then watched one of two brief informative videos. For some groups, the speaker and listeners both watched the same video. For other groups, the speaker and listeners watched different videos. 

The speaker was told whether the listeners watched the same video or a different one. The speaker was then asked to prepare a two-minute description of the talk he or she had seen. Prior to giving the speech, the speaker predicted how much the other participants would like their speech. Then, they gave their talk. Afterward, the speaker predicted how much listeners liked the talk, while the listeners themselves rated how much they liked the talk.

Speakers predicted that listeners would like the talk more when they spoke about a video that the listeners had not seen than when they were speaking about a video the listeners had seen. After making the speech, they also predicted that listeners liked the talk better when they had spoken about a video the listeners had not seen than when they had spoken about a video the listeners had seen. 

The speakers had a novelty bias: They thought that people would want to hear stories about unfamiliar topics. But as it turns out, listeners liked the stories better when the speaker talked about a video they had seen than when the speaker talked about an unfamiliar video.

Why did that happen?

One possibility is that speakers just create better talks when they think they are talking to an audience that is familiar with the topic. This possibility was tested in another study. Once again, some speakers were told to prepare a speech for listeners who had seen the same video as they had. Other speakers were told to prepare a speech for listeners who had seen a different video. This time, though, there were times when the speaker was misinformed—that is, sometimes listeners had seen the same video when the speaker thought they had seen a different one, and sometimes listeners had seen different videos when the speaker thought they had seen the same one. 

The results of this study were the same as the first: Speakers thought listeners would like to hear about videos they had not seen, and listeners liked speeches better when they were about the same video they had seen. So speakers were not preparing better speeches for audiences they thought were familiar with the topic.

A second possibility is that listeners are better at filling in missing details from a talk when they are already familiar with the topic. After all, you have to know a lot in order to understand what someone is saying to you. Perhaps that is easier to do when people are familiar with a topic than when they are unfamiliar, and so they like the talk better. 

To test this possibility, the experimenters created a set of brief written presentations about one of the videos. One version of the talk was relatively complete, and so it had few gaps in it. A second version had some missing statements that required listeners to fill in some details from their knowledge. A third version had many gaps.

One group played the role of speaker. They were told that some listeners would have watched the same video as they did, while others would have watched a different video. They were asked to predict how well participants would like one of the versions of the presentation. These speakers predicted that for the complete and minor missing statement versions of the presentation, listeners would like it better if they had seen a different video than if they had seen the same one. Only when the presentation had a lot of gaps to be filled in did speakers think that listeners would like it better if they had seen the same video.

In fact, listeners always liked the presentation better when it described the same video they had seen than when it described a different one, regardless of the amount they had to fill in. Listeners also rated the clarity of the presentations, and found all versions of the presentation to be clearer when they had seen the same video that was described. A statistical analysis showed that this difference in clarity predicted the difference in how much they liked the presentation.

What does this mean? 

Both novelty and clarity affect how much people like a story. Eventually, a story becomes so familiar that people don’t want to hear it again; they want some novelty. But speakers underestimate the importance of clarity in how much people like a story. And so they err on the side of novelty. As a result, people like their stories less than they would if they talked about something listeners were familiar with.

And that is the lesson the movie studios have learned: Give audiences a little novelty. But embed that novelty in enough familiar elements that the movie is clear and easy to understand. That is the recipe for box-office success.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+. Check out the Two Guys on Your Head book Brain Briefs. Listen to KUT radio Two Guys on Your Head. As well as the books Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership

References

Cooney, G., Gilbert, D.T., & Wilson, T.D. (2017). The novelty penalty: Why do people like talking about new experiences but hearing about old ones? Psychological Science, 28(3), 380-394

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