Suddenly, your spouse pops in and tells you to stay away from Villanova versus Lafayette, which was a blowout, and to watch Baylor versus Georgia State, a nail-biter.
Is this recommendation appreciated? Hardly. Baylor versus Georgia State was exciting because the unexpected happened: It was a back-and-forth affair in which Georgia State, the underdog, clinched the upset only in the final moments. But if you know in advance that it’s a nail-biter, you will expect the unexpected, ruining the surprise.
It’s a lesson that the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, for one, seems to have missed. Once it’s common knowledge that your movie will have a dramatic, unexpected plot twist at the end, then your movie no longer has a dramatic, unexpected plot twist at the end.
To be thrilling, you must occasionally be boring.
This is one of several lessons that came out of our recent study of drama-based entertainment using the tools of information economics — the results of which were published in the Journal of Political Economy in February. When we recognize that the capacity to surprise an audience is a scarce resource (“You can’t fool all of the people all of the time”), it becomes natural to use economic theory to optimize that resource.
We began our analysis by noticing a certain similarity. In a number of settings — watching basketball games, reading mystery novels, gambling in a casino — people are invested in learning the outcome (which team will win, who is the murderer, will I walk out flush or broke), but they do not wish to learn the outcome too quickly. In all of these settings, a key aspect of entertainment is the revelation of information over time.
Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is experienced before the fact, when something informative is about to happen. Think about a baseball scenario: bases loaded, full count, two men out. We say that a moment has a lot of suspense if there is a lot of uncertainty about what you will soon think about the outcome.
Surprise, on the other hand, is experienced after the fact. We are surprised if something unexpected has just happened. Think about a soccer goalie scoring from a goal kick. We say that a moment has a lot of surprise if your belief about the outcome is very different from what you thought a moment ago.
Once these concepts are formalized in this way, the question of how to maximize entertainment — that is, how to generate the most suspense or the most surprise — becomes a mathematical problem that can be tackled on a whiteboard. The solution yields some simple insights (for example, remember occasionally to be boring) but also many nuanced ones.
For instance, to maximize suspense, a mystery novel should have no more than three major plot twists on average. Of course, that last qualification is crucial: The exact number of plot twists should be unpredictable.
We can also determine how a change in rules (in a card game or a sport) would have an impact on entertainment. In the context of casino gambling, our computations show that eliminating the ability to split and double-down in blackjack would reduce both suspense and surprise.
In sports, elimination tournaments like March Madness are seeded so that the top two teams are expected to meet in the final. But top seeds may be eliminated early on. That’s exciting when it happens, but that excitement comes at the cost of a less dramatic final. Could it be more exciting to have the top seeds play in the first round, then let the other teams compete for a chance to unseat the victor? Our analysis shows that this rule change would increase the overall surprise value of the tournament but would have ambiguous effects on suspense.
Playoff series in baseball feature an intriguing trade-off. The longer the series, the less consequential each individual game is. Imagine the tedium of a best-of-99 series. On the other hand, if the series is too short, then there is too little time for the suspense to build.
We found that the typical five- or seven-game series works well because it allows uncertainty about the eventual winner as well as large swings in the likely outcome with each passing game. In general, the more evenly the teams are matched, the longer is the optimal series.
Academic analysis of the determinants of entertainment is in its infancy. Future work, whether built on information theory or not, should help us better understand why we are moved by certain sports, novels and games. This might help us design better entertainment. More important, it will lead us to better understand the human psyche.