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People spend an estimated 10 times more on entertainment than on their own education. That tells how important entertainment is to us. What makes it so important? What is the psychology of entertainment?
Almost everybody loves to be entertained. Entertainment is a vast industry. Depending on which classifications are used, globally it is worth many trillions of US dollars per year. In many countries, the leisure travel market alone is larger than the education market.
Even among groups of people who value education, when they visit cultural attractions and are surveyed for customer satisfaction, they value entertainment as being four times more important than education.
Defining what is and what is not entertainment is far from easy. Is eating out in a restaurant something we do for entertainment or food and beverages? Ask any restaurateur, and they will tell you how vital the entertainment experience is to their customers.
When we use the word ‘entertainment’, do we refer to, for example, a film or to the inner state arising from watching a film? Is the entertainment contained in the material or activity or our inner response to it? We often mean both the event and our perceptions when we talk about entertainment.
What people perceive as entertainment depends on many factors, such as their values, beliefs, culture, and motives.
To an audience of Spanish bullfighting fans, a trip to Plaza de Torres is entertainment. To those who consider such activity barbaric cruelty, even the prospect of witnessing the prolonged torture of an animal is traumatising.
Rarely is any form of entertainment passive. For instance, to be entertained by a stand-up comedian, listening actively to what they are saying is necessary.
Audiences have to give active attention to the source of entertainment for it to be experienced as entertainment.
- Comedians, as with the creators of all other forms of entertainment, take the time necessary to learn and refine their entertainment skills; they learn how to engage audiences and then take them on an emotional journey.
- Singers learn to use their voices to convey a story that evokes emotion in their audiences.
- Film screenplay writers learn the craft of visual story-telling to keep us enthralled; on the edge of our seats.
- Novelists learn the craft of the page-turner, how to create each sentence, paragraph and section in such a way that we want to, even need to, find out what happens next.
Entertainment is a very deliberate and well-studied art. Over millennia successive generations of entertainers have refined their craft to the level we see today.
Entertainment brings many benefits. It can and does release and distract from stress; it provides escapism from the problems in our lives. It protects and improves our mental health.
It will come as no surprise that people with no access to entertainment have poorer mental health than those with plentiful and affordable access.
When workers take state-changing breaks induced by entertainment upon returning to work, their productivity is higher than those without entertainment breaks. The most advanced organisations in the world know that and provide all sorts of entertainment for their staff.
When entertainment is shared with others, it helps to improve the quality of those relationships. For those who are less able to meet others in person, entertainment can enhance their sense of connection with society, which benefits their mental health. Indeed, there is much evidence that watching human interaction-based entertainment helps develop social skills.
What are the theories that try to explain entertainment?
Some theories claim that to understand entertainment, it is necessary to know what people do with any given entertainment. It is wise to understand the utility of any entertainment, but it is far from the whole picture. It is also necessary to understand the gratification people seek from any source of entertainment. Different sources provide different types of entertainment rewards.
Some people would never watch a horror movie. They don’t find being scared entertaining. Others love horror movies because they want to be terrified and find that state exhilarating.
Then there is the gap between the gratification sought and that obtained from any given source. When people get what they want from a source, they tend to do it again. They become repeat consumers. That takes us to a place where it seems wise to seek to understand the goals; the gratification sought, the utility, and the actual rewards obtained by the entertainment seeker.
As a person becomes increasingly engaged with and dependent on an entertainment outlet, that source acquires more and more influence over the user.
Providers of entertainment know that and seek to develop increasing dependency. That leads to the reciprocal causation theory of entertainment. The entertainers seek to understand what the user wants.
The user consumes when their needs are met and don’t when they aren’t met. In an ongoing interplay, each party is influencing the other and cultivating the views of the other; audiences shape what entertainers do, and entertainers shape audiences.
The interplay between entertainment and other aspects of life, too, is ubiquitous.
- Politicians who entertain voters, and tell them what they want to hear, are more electable than those who tell the truth in sober tones.
- Marketers and advertisers have known, across the centuries, that engaged clients buy products and services, and they are acutely aware that among the best ways to engage potential customers is to entertain.
- Educators who can entertain best are more likely to engage their students and, therefore, are more likely to spark passion and enthusiasm for their subject. That, in turn, has an impact on learning outcomes.
Only the best education is even close to being as entertaining as the best entertainment. Children see the world’s best entertainers on all sorts of media and are regularly engaged to the point of being transfixed. They can contrast that with what they experience in school.
Many people spent years of enforced boredom in education because their teachers were not as skilled as they could be in making the lessons entertaining and inspirational. As an aside, we have known for centuries what makes education engaging, yet we seem reluctant to recruit, train or assess teachers based on those skills.
As a result, most members of the public associate education with boredom and unpleasantness. That association leads to a lifetime of disinclination to engage in education, at least in formal ways.
Fortunately, we all learn informally from watching films, plays, and musicals. Now that there are so many platforms with online videos, and we can see how many people have viewed any given video, we have a changing picture of how much self-education is happening.
Millions of people watch videos on all sorts of educational topics. If presented entertainingly, everything from Mathematics lessons to cosmology will be watched by many people at no cost to the viewer. Perhaps, when education is free and compellingly entertaining, people spend their time on it much more than previously thought.
Concluding by revisiting the question we started with, ‘What is the psychology of entertainment?’ The best answer is that we love entertainment because it makes us feel good, and everyone wants to feel good.
Each of us has our preferred way to get to that feel-good place, and the wide variety of entertainment reflects the huge span of ways we can get there.
Which types of entertainment best help you to feel good?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.