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The Draw of Susan Boyle

Who is Susan Boyle?

Who is Susan Boyle? Simply the latest household name of the YouTube era. With one stunning performance last week in a talent show on the other side of the Atlantic, Susan Boyle’s video has become the most-watched in the history of the Internet. When last I checked, just one version had been viewed over 39 million times. In one week. Who are these people??

Me, apparently. I just can’t get enough.

I have watched the video each day since I received the link. Sometimes twice. I don’t otherwise watch talent shows, and my music preferences don’t tend toward songs from musicals. Yet like millions of others, I’m drawn to watch this video over and again. Why? Because Susan Boyle is an ordinary woman who did an extraordinary thing. And the crowd went wild!

The Susan Boyle phenomenon exemplifies the power of what I call “other-praising emotions.” Research suggests that these particular flavors of positivity help us become better versions of ourselves, by drawing our attention to (and keeping us riveted to) talented, virtuous, and kind exemplars in our social world.

When Ms. Boyle opens her mouth to sing, within seconds, her talent becomes apparent. Perhaps you knew it from the chills you experienced or the fact that your jaw dropped. Chances are, you were feeling admiration. Admiration is the positive emotional response to witnessing remarkable skill, talent, or courage. I think of it as a shortcut to our own success. Why? One reason is because admired individuals are inspiring or motivating. My own research documents this. Yet there’s something more to it. A thoughtful analysis of prestige, by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White, suggests that the emotion of admiration helps us find people who already have the answers. Then, we carefully study these people, with hopes of picking up clues to life success. Susan Boyle is a prototypical example, which is why so many people are watching: what’s her secret?! Yet in our everyday lives, too, repeated interactions with people we admire allow us to watch and learn, and thereby expand our own capacities.

Admiration for Ms. Boyle’s talent is just the beginning of why so many people want to catch another glimpse of the video: It’s also phenomenally moving to witness the admiration on the faces of so many people in the crowd. Other-praising emotions serve dual purposes. At the same time that they shine light on the path to success, our expressions of praise – both verbal and nonverbal - provide the firepower behind rapid transmission of a good reputation throughout a community. In this case, the “community” is all together in one place at one time: it’s the crowd. The video allows us to see both the path to and the social consequences of success, all unfolding before our eyes in rapid time. And this exponentially increases the high we get from watching it.

Our reaction comes first, but then Simon Cowell’s raised eyebrows and open mouth validate the hunch that we’re onto something. The crowd leaps to its feet. The looks of awe and reverence, and the rush of praise, respect, and goodwill that comes from the judges and the joyful crowd, feels like a warm blanket. Judge Amanda Holden’s deferential remark, “I just want to say that it was a complete privilege to hear that,” feels good to witness, even the tenth time! Susan Boyle deserves it. For every ordinary person who has dreamt of what they might become if just given the chance, the video of Susan Boyle’s experience puts all the positive consequences on center stage, and amplifies the effect. The video is both inspiring and addictive.

I will probably never meet Susan Boyle. But that’s just fine, because opportunities to experience admiration abound in my everyday life. If I pay attention, I have countless chances to see the best in the people I interact with, right in my own community, from one day to the next. They are friends, colleagues, and even the busy stranger at the grocery store who stops to help a mother with her groceries as she chases her runaway child. I am moved by their virtues and talents. And in these moments of positive emotions, I can see the path to becoming a better version of myself. It is well-lit, and inviting.

That’s why I can’t get enough of Susan Boyle. And it’s why I’m not alone. Thank you, Ms. Boyle, for being who you are.

AUTHOR NOTE: This blog entry was written by guest author Dr. Sara Algoe, an expert on other-praising emotions and senior member of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (a.k.a., PEP Lab) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From time to time members of PEP Lab, past and present, join Barb here to highlight the virtues of positivity.

Barbara Fredrickson is the author of Positivity and Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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