Think you’ve heard that song before? Were there more Jennifer’s or Jessica’s in your class at school? And what does this have to do with the rise of Donald Trump?
In the latest episode of the Interesting People in Interesting Times podcast, Derek Thompson, author of Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, explains what influences our thinking, drives our choices, and ultimately dictates human behavior.
Thompson argues that patterns and predictability are the essence of human life. What makes a hit song, a winning politician, a bestselling product, and even a successful tech startup, comes down to repetition.
At the core of Thompson’s theory is the myth of novelty: We seemingly love to discover new things, but they only resonate with us if they’re grounded in an element of familiarity.
“We live in a culture where there’s enormous pressure to be aware of and to like new things, to be aware of new songs, to see new movies, to read new books, to seek out new ideas, to be up on the hottest fashion or the most salacious thing happening on Twitter,” Thompson says. “Yet the most fundamental finding from psychology is that people do not like new things. The [concept of] the mere-exposure effect says that the mere exposure to any stimulus to us biases us towards that stimulus: we are suckers for the familiar.”
“Take movies. We love to see new movies. That said, every year this century, a majority of the top 10 films in America have been sequels, adaptations, or reboots. This is even true in the landscape of ideas. It’s thrilling and wonderful to read a brilliant essay but what we love and pass on the most is those essays that have a clever joke or framing device to tell us that that thing we believe in is in fact true.”
The reason we fall for certain people and products comes down to “familiar surprises: ideas that strike us as original when we confront them, but in investigating them, it’s like stepping through a door and seeing an old friend on the inside. Discovering a feeling of familiarity within products and discovering a-ha moments is what all consumers are looking for throughout the cultural landscape.”
In politics, Thompson says, “We love new faces. But we only fall for them when they tell us familiar stories.” For example, “Make America Great Again is not only the most traditional thing you could possibly say, but it’s so traditional, Ronald Reagan said it 28 years ago.”
“For a long period of time, elites could use scarce media channels like radio to dictate taste to consumers, and consumers through sheer repetition and familiarity bias would lap up the ideas of the elites. Taste was top-down for most of history, but now it’s bottom-up.”
What does that have to do with Donald Trump?
The dominant theory in political science about elections was called “the party decides” — voters don’t decide who becomes the presidential nominee of any particular party. The party decides. The party equals the elites. The exact same phenomenon that’s happening in music, is happening in politics. But now, you have this explosion in the channels of exposure.
“Taste in politics, just like taste in music, has gone from being dictated top down to where it bubbles up. Across the cultural landscape, taste itself is becoming more chaotic, harder to predict, harder to control.”
Turns out, the structure of making a hit song, and its devices, like repetition, are key to political speechwriting, as well as marketing.
The most famous line in speech making in the 20th century is John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Mark Twain said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Hillary Clinton’s perhaps most well-known line is: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”
“The reason this is so common in speechwriting, so clever and so powerful, is that it turns ideas into music through repetition. It takes any concept and musicalizes it so that our brain falls in love with the music before it even has time to process the substance.”
And here’s where this connects to Andrew Yang, who is running for President in 2020, as featured in the first episode of the IPIT podcast.< According to Thompson, “Andrew Yang is selling a huge proposal with Universal Basic Income. And he’s selling it based on a rather large, scary principle: that our jobs are going away in way that’s never happened before. I think it’s important for politicians to have huge visions, particularly when those visions are based in an element of morality. I would urge him however to find more ways to fit the concept of a freedom dividend within the system that we have, by suggesting, for example, that he’s open to doubling or tripling the income tax credit. Or by suggesting that he’s willing to expand Medicare maybe from 65 to 55 and even to 45, and that he has plans to expand Medicaid as well. I think that having an element of radical idealism is really really important for running for president. But it’s important that we ground our visions of radicalism to an element of familiarity, because politics, like music, is a popularizing business. Running for president is essentially the largest popularity contest in the U.S. And we know people are afraid of ideas that sound too radical.”
The takeaway here is: “Dream as big as possible, but just as it’s important to sell something familiar by making it surprising, if you’re trying to sell something surprising, do remember to make it familiar.”
Interesting People in Interesting Times is a podcast hosted by Tom Goodwin and Adriana Stan. This episode was recorded last month at Soho House New York.
Listen to the podcast here.