Trust in Storytelling (cont.)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. The two basic ideas I introduced there were (1) the Accessibility Tradeoff and (2) Author-Audience Trust. (1) is the idea that as you make something harder, fewer people can enjoy it, but those who can enjoy it more than they would have had it been easier. (2) is the idea that an author (and by ‘author’ I also mean director, artist, jokester, songwriter, game designer, etc.) builds trust with her audience by introducing increasingly complex patterns in her work, thereby creating conditions in which the audience can do something hard, in the sense meant in (1), and earn the corresponding satisfaction from doing it.

Today, I want to delve deeper into the first idea, the Accessibility Tradeoff. The first thing to is more of a housekeeping chore and the second takes a real step, I think, towards explaining what is going on here.

Let’s begin with some housekeeping. First, recall the tradeoff and it’s two parts:

  1. If you make a something easy (straightforward, simple, accessible, etc.) more people will be able to enjoy it. Conversely, if you make something hard (nuanced, complex, esoteric, etc.) fewer people will be able to enjoy it.
  2. Hard things are, all else equal, more enjoyable than easy things, provided one can and does enjoy them.

The task I have in mind is simply to emphasize the importance of that last clause: “provided one can and does enjoy them”. Without it, part two is obviously false, and it’s easy to generate counterexamples that show just that. While by and large I enjoy attempting the New York Times Sunday Crossword, there are puzzles that are, for me, hard and unenjoyable. I feel similarly about learning Jazz and Classical pieces on the guitar. The final clause is crucial, then, because it limits the Accessibility Tradeoff to cases in which one really does enjoy something; it is more interested in saying something about why we get a little enjoyment out of some things and a lot of enjoyment out of others, and less interested in saying why we enjoy those things at all in the first place.

An answer to the second question, while not my main topic of interest, is worth articulating, if only to nudge us toward the second topic of today’s post. When asking why we enjoy some things and not others, I don’t mean to ask why we have the tastes or preferences we have. Rather, I mean to ask why something too easy or too hard is usually unenjoyable. The answer to this, I think, relies on the concept of one’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development,’ (ZPD) an idea introduced by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The term is used most commonly in a pedagogical context in the following sense:

Vygotsky’s Rule of Learning: Learning will not take place if a task is too easy or too hard. The range of difficulty in which learning can occur is called the Zone of Proximal Development.

When it comes to learning, Vygotsky’s Rule seems to get things right, but how does the ZPD factor into an account of enjoyment? There are two possible answers that emerge immediately. One answer piggybacks on Vygotsky’s Rule and says, simply, learning entails enjoyment. A bold claim to be sure, but it’s not obviously false, at least as far as I can see. The second answer constructs an analogous rule, call it (tongue firmly in my cheek), Sebastian’s Rule of Fun, which says: One will not enjoy something that is too easy or too hard. The range of difficulty in which enjoyment is possible is called the Zone of Proximal Enjoyment.

The problem with the second answer, delightful as it is to name a “rule” after myself, is that it isn’t in fact an answer; it merely restates the question. We want to know why one will not enjoy something that is too easy or too hard, and saying that such things lie outside one’s Zone of Proximal Enjoyment does nothing in the way of explanation.

The first answer, by contrast, is explanatory. It says that we enjoy things that are not too hard or too easy because we are learning while doing them, and learning is enjoyable. Another point in favor of the first answer is that ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ are not fixed, objective notions, but–and this, I hope, is obvious to the reader–vary both between subjects and for a given subject over time. So there is evidence, I think, that in doing things that are neither too easy nor too hard (and thereby enjoyable) I am learning and improving at those things. The key question is whether it is the learning itself that I am enjoying, or whether learning is a fortunate by-product of taking up an activity at the right level of difficulty.

This, then, is the second topic I wanted to introduce today: can the enjoyment with which the Accessibility Tradeoff is concerned be reduced to learning?

I mean ‘reduced’ here in the scientific sense. Another, slightly less elegant, way to capture this idea is to say ‘X just is Y’. E.g. “Water reduces to H20” or “Water just is H20,” “Heat reduces to molecular motion” or “Heat just is molecular motion”. If the enjoyment associated with getting a joke, appreciating a story, or playing a game just is the experience of learning how to better understand those types of jokes, appreciate those types of stories, or play those types of games, that would be a really interesting finding.

But this hypothesis needs testing, especially given the prevalence of competing explanations. Why is it learning and not, say, emotional investment or entering into a state of flow that explains the enjoyment in question? This is the kind of question that will need answering if we want to get to the bottom of the Accessibility Tradeoff.

I’ll leave things here for today, as I am truly split on whether I think the ZPD pulls explanatory weight here. As always, please use the comment section as a space to share thoughts of your own.

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