The Economics of Suspense

Fascinated by this New York Times article by Jeffrey Ely (Northwestern), Alexander Frankel and Emir Kamenica (Chicago Booth) about using economic theory to optimize entertainment:

“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.”

Some lessons:

  • Information revealed over time generates drama through suspense (experienced before the fact) and surprise (experienced after the fact).
  • To be thrilling, you must occasionally be boring.
  • Mystery novels should have no more than three major plot twists on average, but the exact number of plot twists should be unpredictable.
  • Five- or seven- series games are optimal in sports, because it allows uncertainty about the eventual winner and allows for large swings in the likely outcome with each passing game.

“Academic analysis of the determinants of entertainment is in its infancy. Future work […] 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.”

I would love to read about these professors’ takes on how the results of their research can pair most effectively with experienced entertainment professionals’ intuition, but I guess that’s a question for another day!

Image courtesy of CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

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