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The Role of Suspense in Stories and Music
One of the hallmarks of a good story is the element of surprise. A good story leads us down a path of expectations, slowly building tension until an unexpected plot twist catches us off guard. Mystified, we reinterpret the story with the new details, taking delight in how the storyteller managed to pull the rug out from underneath us.
Stories have been tricking us for as long as they’ve existed. We’ve enjoyed it, too. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the longest running show in the modern era with over 20,000 performances since 1952. Psycho and The Sixth Sense are in AFI’s top 100. A well-placed ruse leaves us feeling swindled – as if we wrongfully trusted a stranger to watch over our belongings. Yet we’ll keep coming back for more, looking forward to the next unexpected twist.
At least this is what I’ve always assumed. A study conducted last summer by a team of researchers from the University of California at San Diego paints a different picture. The experiment was straightforward. Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt gave a few dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. There were three categories: ironic twist stories (Chekhov’s “The Bet”), mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Christenfeld and Leavitt created three groups: the first read the stories as they are written; the second read the stories with a spoiler embedded in the text, carefully crafted as if Chekhov or Christie penned it; the last group read the stories with a blatant spoiler disclaimer printed in the preface.
Christenfeld and Leavitt found that participants significantly preferred the spoiled versions in all three categories. Why? The researchers weren’t sure, but Leavitt hypothesized that "once you know how it turns out, it's cognitively easier -- you're more comfortable processing the information -- and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story." Despite these findings, everyone complains when online news outlets report Olympic results before primetime coverage or when someone tweets the series finale of Mad Men. I empathize with Don Draper fans, but this research suggests we should embrace spoilers.
Alfred Hitchcock once told the French film critic Francois Truffaut to imagine a couple having lunch at a restaurant. Everything appears normal when suddenly boom! A bomb underneath the table explodes killing each patron. Rewind the story. This time you know the bomb is there and it will detonate at 1pm. A clock in the restaurant reads 12:55. The couple asks for the check. The slow service builds tension. We want to warn them: “Pay the bill, there’s a bomb!” For Hitchcock, it’s not surprise, but suspense that pushes our pleasure buttons – would Oedipus be the same if we didn’t know it was Jocasta?
Of course, Hitchcock left plenty of room for surprises. But he reserved them for the very end – only then was a surprise better than suspense. This is why we return to Psycho: we love reliving the feeling of suspense even when the cover is blown. Perhaps this explains the results from the study by Christenfeld and Leavitt: knowing the ending enhanced the suspense.
Is this why even though we know George Taylor is doomed to a post-apocalyptic Earth we willfully return to Planet of the Apes? Sixth Sense and Fight Club can be better the second time around even though we know the true nature of Malcolm Crowe (Willis) and Tyler Durden (Pitt) from the beginning. Personally, I could watch Empire Strikes Back on repeat. I don’t come back to relive the surprise – Luke, I know who your father is – but to relive the suspense.
Music behaves similarly. As a song unfolds, the brain is on the lookout for patterns, anticipating when the next beat will come. It takes pleasure in matching a mental beat with a real world one. But a good musician, like Hitchcock, keeps you on your toes, challenging your expectations and violating patterns in surprising yet stimulating ways.
We like surprises in music, but we usually gravitate towards songs and genres we’re familiar with. I know how Under Pressure ends – I’ve listened to it a million times – and that’s why I come back for more. The familiarity doesn’t spoil it; it enhances it. As a related study puts it, the first sounds of a favorite song – the catchy bass riff in Under Pressure – “[signals] that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, [which] trigger[s] expectations of euphoric emotional states and create[s] a sense of wanting and reward prediction.” This is why “composers and performers frequently… manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.”
Storytellers and musicians – artists in general - are in the same business: expectation-management. Good stories and songs tease expectations and build suspense, getting the audience to come back for more even though the ending is spoiled.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.