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Riveted Reviews

Listing all reviews, even if they're bad, might mean selling fewer books, but this is science, and science just doesn't work without feedback.

You can purchase Riveted and judge it for yourself.

Literary Review of Canada: Vol. 22, No. 8 October 2014 http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2014/10/

"In Riveted, he takes us well beyond the walls of his own laboratory, taking the reader on an attraction-packed tour of the last two decades' worth of scientific studies probing the informational affinities and biases of humans."

"The book is an outstanding resource for curious readers--my own copy of the references section was smothered with sticky notes flagging articles to track down for further reading."

New Scientist: September 16, 2014 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329860.600#.VBsRLvk7tcY

"...In the battle to grab attention, you should heed the musings of Jim Davies in Riveted. Davies researches imagination and artistic creativity at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottowa, Canada. He thinks that compelling things tend to be compelling for much the same reasons. For example, stories and theories are more interesting if they involve people, or social explanations. We are more likely to believe something if it makes us fearful, or hopeful, possibly for evolutionary reasons. And we are drawn to narratives that repeat familiar patterns – our craving for explanation makes us seek patterns even when there may well be none.

In true academic style, Davies attempts a grand unified theory of compellingness, although his myriad, diverse observations defy tidy explanation. This is hardly surprising. What both books show is that while media culture can be overwhelming, it also provides a great platform from which to observe the endless mysteries and absurdities of human nature."

The Guardian: August 10, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/11/riveted-jim-davies-review-science-why-things-compelling?CMP=twt_gu

Jim Davies doesn't think much of newspapers. "I worry that news has none of the characteristics that make something worthwhile," he writes. "It's not fun, it causes anxiety, it gives you a warped sense of reality, and people who watch it are rarely going to do anything with the information they get."

But whether Davies likes it or not, the news has people hooked. And in Riveted, he takes a punt at explaining why. In fact, according to Davies, the appeal of many ideas and actions boils down to six key factors – the pillars of his "compellingness foundations theory". Scratch the surface, he believes, and it all comes back to a person-centered subject matter, the presence of patterns, the odd incongruity and a topic that pushes the buttons of hope or fear. Stimuli that engage our body or senses and thoughts that play to our psychological biases are also likely to appeal. And news agencies, in ticking many of these boxes, milk compellingness like a Jersey cow. We should, Davies warns, be wary. "To a great extent news tells us things that are anomalous and unimportant, which we then perceive as common and probable."

He is hardly the first to think that. But in exploring what makes things gripping, he touches on topics that many will warm to. Rhyming idioms, he explains, are catchy, attractive and appear truthful because they are easy to mentally process and their repetitive sound appeals to our love of patterns; idioms that at first glance appear contradictory stimulate our keen eye for incongruity. Fiction, on the other hand, is so engrossing because we are hard-wired to detect useful information and while part of our brain knows that what we are reading is make-believe, another part thinks the characters, and events, are real. Some aspect of our poor sorry minds really thinks Mr Darcy is out there. Somewhere.

Yet hopping from anecdote to study, scientific consensus to his own untested hypotheses, Davies's narrative feels strangely unstructured. Dishing out ideas, conclusions, and the odd arresting fact, his case studies sometimes seem isolated, their relevance not fully fleshed out. But there are gems amid the muddle – as Davies chillingly points out, our deep-rooted fear of disease has often been hijacked by political rhetoric to damage human relations. "Texts associated with the American Jim Crow laws and with the apartheid system in South Africa have many references to contagion, concerned as they are with the pollution of the white essence," he writes. Our nagging suspicion that the mind exists beyond burial is equally, well, riveting, with Davies discussing a theory that it's down to an extrapolation of our knowledge that our friends and family don't stop existing just because we're 140 miles away watching Poirot.

Indeed the itch that Davies really wants to scratch is religion. Among the myriad hypotheses he airs for belief is that religious ritual appeals to our love of patterns, that our interest in people and purpose means we are drawn to the idea of a human-like God, that biases mean we only interpret evidence in a way that supports our beliefs, and that a predisposition to religion arose through evolution because it counters selfishness, benefiting communities. However even Davies concedes that such psychology has its critics. "It's easy to come up with evolutionary explanations of behaviour," he admits while freely offering several of his own.

But whether or not you buy the notion that religions were founded by a collection of schizotypals and OCD sufferers or that positive words and ideas are associated with an upward direction because we correlate standing up with good health, there's no doubt that some of the proposals Davies discusses are compelling – although given that he repeatedly warns readers to be on their guard against such attractive ideas, he might well have shot himself in the foot. Indeed, with Davies warning that "ideas that seem absurd at first become more plausible after repeated exposure", perhaps it is best to take the hint and read this book just the once.

The Wall Street Journal: August 1, 2014 http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-riveted-by-jim-davies-1406924427

Every four years, roughly half the planet tunes in for the World Cup. One might wonder what everyone finds so interesting about watching a bunch of strangers kick a ball around for 90 minutes at a time.

The cognitive scientist Jim Davies offers a few answers in his new book, "Riveted," which aims to offer a "a unified explanation of compellingness"—a take on why we care about sports, as well as art, gossip, religion and anything else that commands our attention. His primary tool is evolutionary psychology, whose hypotheses he wields liberally, while backing them with relevant experimental findings whenever possible.

Mr. Davies proposes that compellingness rests on six (sometimes overlapping) foundations: people, things we hope for or fear, patterns, incongruity, things related to the body, and various psychological tendencies. In the case of soccer, he writes, we're drawn to competition—particularly if one side represents our group, evoking loyalty. The tangible outcome on the field might not matter much, provided no one dies, but the fight harks back to times when tribal combat had real stakes. Even taken purely symbolically, athletic performance acts as a demonstration of broader qualities such as the strength and character of a nation's people, and we like to know where everyone stands.

Typically, athletes exhibit skills one might use in the real world, or might have been useful to a hunter-gatherer in the ancestral environment—running, dodging, coordinating. We like seeing these things done well, Mr. Davies says, so we can learn from them. Even watching a Lionel Messi or a Michael Jordan —someone whose footwork or flight path surpasses what we might ever achieve—we find beauty in the ideal form. And we perhaps glean a bit of strategic information: what our potential allies or enemies are capable of.

Michael Jordan a potential ally? Just as our brains might on some level mistake a battle on the pitch for a pitched battle, Mr. Davies suggests, we can be as interested in people on TV as we are in our own social circle. What Lionel Messi's girlfriend is wearing really doesn't affect our lives, but we find such gossip irresistible because, for millennia, humans lived in small groups in which everyone's activities would indeed have been vitally important. Gossip is recon about others' morals or proclivities or weaknesses. We use it to keep people in line and to monitor changes in social status. One study found that 80% of conversations are about social topics.

Mr. Davies frequently highlights how our "old brain" influences our behavior, even as our "new brain" knows better. Describing his experience watching the movie "Finding Nemo, " he writes: "Reflect for a moment on the absurdity of somebody (me) crying over a screen representing fictional fish spawned by computer graphics." "Finding Nemo" works emotionally because the characters are anthropomorphized—presented as person-like—and we're drawn to anything involving people. Try telling a decent story about fish, or anything at all, that doesn't include humanlike drives or anxieties. We survive by understanding others and knowing what they're up to. So the nightly news skips boring statistics about drunk driving and focuses on colorful tales of road rage. Mr. Davies argues that the news has become too compelling for our own good. "To a great extent news tells us things that are anomalous and unimportant," he writes, "which are then perceived as common and probable."

Our tendency to look for causality, indeed intentionality, Mr. Davies points out, is also responsible for religion. We're biased to consider the possible intentions behind important events, and so we tend to see even natural or random events as happening for a comprehensible reason. Then we look to the sky and wonder who's up there and what he or she or they are thinking. Of course there's variation across cultures and individuals in the ideas that find a home in our heads, but our shared evolutionary traits allow certain types of beliefs—faith in a moralizing, anthropomorphic deity, for instance—to fit more snugly.

While sports and movies and the mind of God can all genuinely be called riveting, in later chapters it becomes clear that Mr. Davies means to describe as compelling any idea or stimulus that even slightly catches our interest. He discusses our fascination with patterns, for instance. Symmetric faces look more attractive, rhyming sentences sound more believable ("I Like Ike") and most songs have a steady beat. But while we like order, we don't like too much. Music with no variation in melody would lose its hold. Humor relies on incongruity, presenting a confusion or threat that draws us in. (Then we resolve it and see the pattern, making jokes doubly appealing.) We enjoy various flavors of unfinished business: absurdity (music videos), mystery (whodunits) and puzzles (Sudoku). Some of these things are more riveting than others.

Mr. Davies covers a lot of scenic and provocative territory—though much of the material is familiar from books like Paul Bloom's "How Pleasure Works" and Bruce Hood's "SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable"—but the book suffers from some structural problems. He digresses, he repeats himself, and he devotes a full third of the book to one topic—superstition and religion. What's more, his "unified explanation" is anything but. Besides splitting compellingness into a medley of six explanations, he makes two of them capacious grab-bags: His body category includes sensory perception, ritual actions, metaphors, and ghosts, and his psychological group is vaguer still, taking in colors, sexual attraction and assorted biases. There's a reason unification hadn't been achieved. Scholars tend to lump categories together or split them apart, and, as Mr. Davies acknowledges, "this book is super lumpy." Well, one lump is too few, and even six is a stretch.

Evolutionary psychology provides plausible explanations for many human behaviors and, more important, proposes new ideas to test. Because of its power, one is tempted to see everything as a nail, and Mr. Davies whacks everything in sight. It's a fun show, and I have no specific reason to challenge most of the hypotheses discussed (except maybe his ideas about the faces of fictional aliens), but we should always take heed of Mr. Davies's advice: Be wary of accepting an explanation just because it's compelling.

—Mr. Hutson is the author of "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane."

Nature: July 31, 2014 http://www.nature.com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/nature/journal/v511/n7511/full/511533a.html (link only usable from Carleton's Campus)

Moments that jolt or delight us punctuate our lives. But whereas shock might be salutary in an art gallery, it can trigger blind belief in other contexts, points out cognitive scientist Jim Davies. Expounding his theory of 'compellingness foundations', Davies synthesizes research on what makes us susceptible to gripping stimuli, such as our drives to discover patterns and to find incongruity, and our attraction to hope and fear. Scepticism, he argues, can help us to build resistance to riveting ideas that turn out to be duds.

Library Journal: June 15, 2014

Why do some of us like certain kinds of music or works of art, or believe in one religion instead of another? What draws us in and keeps us riveted? Davies (cognitive science, Carleton Univ.) answers these questions using a combination of social, evolutionary, and cognitive psychological theories. He explains how our "old" and "new" brains interact and often collide with each other when reacting to certain stimuli. As humans, we like patterns and symmetry, but, at the same time, we enjoy looking at objects that surprise us and cause dissonance. It's that element of surprise that keeps us captivated. The author spends most of the book describing why we believe in the supernatural—and includes religion in that category—and warns readers that they might not like everything he has to say but asks them to keep an open mind. He also reflects on the research shown in Stuart A. Vyse's Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. VERDICT Davies's publication is quite absorbing and is recommended for all readers who seek answers as to what we find compelling and why.—Jill Morningstar, Michigan State Univ. Libs., East Lansing

Publisher's Weekly: May 5, 2014

Davies, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, attempts to devise a "compellingness foundations theory” to explain much of human behavior, building on the basics of evolutionary psychology. He flits from topic to topic, landing briefly and probing gently before moving on. In the midst of asking whether there is a link between the way we perceive humor and profanity, for example, he detours into a very brief discussion of tickling before returning to humor, having left profanity behind. Although Davies makes abundant use of footnotes, he offers so little discussion of the research he cites that unless the reader is already familiar with the works cited, they are not likely to prove useful in advancing his thesis. One of Davies’s goals is to “explain why we find religious and paranormal ideas riveting” while demonstrating that “supernatural beliefs are false,” yet his findings will leave readers yearning for more substance. His general observations are similarly banal: “We don’t seem to have nonartistic, nonerotic photos... of people we don’t recognize.” Davies addresses an array of captivating questions superficially and with little insight.

Kirkus: May 21, 2014

A multidisciplinary exploration of how and why certain ideas and experiences resonate more than others.

The world around us contains a vast number of things we find compelling, from fine art to video games to scary stories. Psychology Today blogger Davies (Institute of Cognitive Science/Carleton Univ.) orients all of these categories of riveting phenomena around what he calls a "compellingness foundations theory." Central to his framework is the idea that there are psychological and evolutionary commonalities among the reasons we find things interesting. For example, an innate instinct to be physically prepared for any potential physical conflict may explain why we enjoy watching sports; even on TV, a football game causes mirror neurons in our brains to fire, making us feel like we're taking part in the action. Similarly, we're hard-wired to be drawn to stories that instill fear or suggest conspiracy, since we might glean some information that will provide important lessons for survival. Backed by recent research across fields including psychology, anthropology and biology, the author suggests that our methods of discerning what we find compelling—and therefore more likely to remember and repeat—are largely subconscious and remarkably similar across different kinds of stimuli. Whether we delight in finding a pattern due to the fact that it reveals a regularity that might be exploited or connect with a religious narrative since it brings us hope or peace of mind, the brain is affected in similar ways. Laughter, too, is more primitive than we think, closely related to fear and relief—though a good joke, especially one with an incongruous punch line, is also powerfully compelling. Packed with cutting-edge research findings and written with clarity and brio, this book accomplishes its goal of delivering riveting content.

A fascinating analysis of what we find fascinating.

"To describe Riveted as riveting sounds cliché, but I predict that Jim Davies could be the next Malcolm Gladwell. Integrating scientific findings with compelling stories across the wide spectrum of the human experience--art, music, literature, comedy, magic, quotes, sports, conspiracy theories, gossip, religion, and science itself--Davies weaves a central theme throughout to explain what makes them all so compelling. You can read Riveted for five minutes or five hours and be enriched at multiple levels, and the book itself explains why. How recursive."

Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, and The Science of Good and Evil

“What makes a song, a piece of art, a tabloid or even a silly romantic comedy film trailer so enthralling? What is it about these things that draw us in, even when we may (or at least should) know better? In Riveted, Jim Davies tackles this complex question by proposing a thoughtful, interdisciplinary framework to illuminate the qualities of 'compellingness,’ the very attributes of riveting things that have the power to sway our beliefs and attention. By tying together psychological, anthropological, cognitive science, and evolutionary biological studies, he provides a thorough and persuasive context to help us understand how the compelling can fascinate (and sometimes manipulate) the human mind.”

Kayt Sukel, author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships

“My life’s work as an experience designer has been to rivet audiences for Universal, Disney, Sanrio, Broadway as well as to train soldiers, surgeons, and other high-risk job holders for life and death situations. So I know how and what makes an audience ‘riveted,’ but not until reading Jim Davies' book did I understand WHY audiences are RIVETED. This book is a delightful read through the many diverse and nuanced drivers of human experience, influences, and choices. It is a must read for anyone who is looking to influence these strange beasts we call humans and keep them captivated.”

Christopher Stapleton, Experience Designer and Creative Venture Catalyst, Simiosys

“Accessible and entertaining. Davies draws fascinating insights from a wealth of diverse material.”

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., author of Why Music Moves Us

“Once alerted to the axiomatic principle that our brains have been tilted in their design to seek out and fix upon those things most beneficial to our survival (arrived at through millennia of adaptation and selection), we are allowed to understand as never before the mental inducements to what we attend, crave, fear, and enjoy. A careful look into our biogenetic natures elucidates the systemic bases of the needs, compulsions, emotions, and computational capacities from which all culture must inevitably flow. Jim Davies' Riveted lives up to its title as a compelling investigation into the properties of our lives: why we plan, imagine, invent imaginary worlds, weep and laugh in chorus, delight in puzzles and incongruities, respond to patterns, rhythms, and repetitions, cluster in groups and create outsiders, seek attractive partners, and crave status. These are engaging topics at the "how so" level of our idiosyncratic pursuits as a gregarious and potentially cooperative species. But always in the background is the informing essence of our adaptive origins and the imperatives of the brain itself which shape, control, and explain the tropisms of our existence. To a better understanding of human nature, this book is a brilliant guide. ”

Donald Beecher, Chancellor’s Professor, Carleton University, Ottawa