By Jim McCarthy May 14, 2012 2 comments

Is the Power of Live Experiences Just a Trick?

Humans tend to mimic those around them, even without knowing it.  Two people talking, assuming they like each other, tend to start mimicking each other’s mannerisms and turns of phrase within just a few minutes.  Take the most banal song in the world and have 1000 people sing it slowly, like an anthem, and you might tear up, even if it’s just the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.  You may not care a whit about the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs, but if you’re at the ballpark and tens of thousands of people cheer when one of the players makes an exciting catch, which really has absolutely no relevance to your life, you have to be a great big grump not to get excited.

So are we just being played by our biology?  I remember reading (but can’t for the life of me cite this…maybe one of you can help me) a psych experiment where people were asked to identify an object’s color, for example, and it was totally obvious was that color was.  Of course, people had no trouble doing this, until they were put into a room with other “subjects” who were really confederates of the psychologist doing the experiment.  They said, for example, that an obviously green object was red.  Most people could resist saying their own (obviously correct opinion) until about 4 other people went first and said something different.  And then most people looked right at something they KNEW was red and said it was green.

I’ve noticed a couple things about behavior at theatres and in comedy clubs that I find fascinating along these same lines.  First, at a comedy club, people think the comic, if he or she is halfway decent, is hysterical.  They absolutely bust a gut laughing.  Some people laugh so hard at an average professional comic in a live setting that they hyperventilate, all in a fun way of course.  Sure, you could write some of this down to having a couple drinks and loosening up, but I don’t think that’s it.  Do an experiment and watch the same comic both live and recorded and judge this for yourself.  It’s remarkable the difference.

At theatre events, I’m even more struck by how much and how loudly people laugh.  I’m not talking about comedic theatre events.  Just plays.  Just little moments where a character utters a line that has even a shred of levity.  A non-joke you’d best characterize as “droll” sets some people off guffawing.  Things that I’m not even sure the writer intended to be funny get people chortling like donkeys on nitrous oxide.  It’s strange.

And in sports, a Tuesday night game between one team and the 4th worst team in the league, with little or nothing at stake in the standings can precipitate loud, angry arguments about who’s out or who committed a foul.  It’s irrelevant by any standard, and yet so powerful that people lose themselves in it.

But here’s the point: you could call this a trick or you could call it the power of the medium that we work in.  This is true about human nature for a reason.  Why do we mimic each other?  Why does the enthusiasm and excitement of one person make us enthusiastic and excited?  Are we just suckers for some kind of primitive group think that happened because bands of cave people needed to stick together to avoid getting eaten by monsters?

Possibly.  But is that so bad?  The tribe has gotten quite a lot bigger, and the monsters have changed forms, but along the way, we’ve managed to trick ourselves into thinking that we don’t need the tribe anymore.  We feel self-reliant and independent because we can house, feed and entertain ourselves on our own, when in fact we’re absolutely 100% totally dependent on “the tribe” for all those solitary activities to work in the first place.  We’re far more dependent than those cave people, but we feel just the opposite.

So this response that we have could be nature’s way of telling us that we need this group.  We need to stay in tune with the group because if we do, good things happen.  It feels good to stand up and cheer when your baseball team hits a meaningless home run in the 8th inning of a tuesday night game.  It feels good to laugh too loud in a group of people that are laughing.  It probably even feels good to get goosebumps over the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.  Don’t feel bad about that.  Go for it.  It’s nature’s way of telling you that you need other people.

And if you’re on the selling side of this business, remember this.  The production on the stage doesn’t just happen between the show and the individual person. It’s the show, the person and the people around each person.  In a way, that’s the real show and one of the biggest differences between being there live and just seeing what happened.

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    2 Comments

    • Arne

      The over-loud laughs at theatre seem to be related to the inflationary standing ovations at classical concerts, even at average performances. Of which I read the reasonable explanation that the audience, by applauding extraordinarily much, creates the extraordinary concert it hoped to experience. One could call it “Retrospect Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (TM)”, or simply self-betrayal. Here, too, the group effect sure plays its part.

    • Jim McCarthy

      I think you are right about that, Arne.