Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance And Time Perception In Harry Potter

In Sep '08 I wrote that readers rate longer books as better, often ignoring opportunity cost, because they "spend so much time and energy reading the book that they come to believe it must have been good." Today the BPS Digest reports that "participants who'd experienced the sense of the time flying rated the task as far more enjoyable than did the participants who'd experienced the sense of time dragging." These two factors help to explain my pet theory about the success of the Harry Potter books. Here goes:

1) Readers are initially intimidated by the page number length. How could they ever get through that? Yet most start anyway, perhaps looking forward to the challenge.

2) What most readers don't consciously recognize is that there's so much dialogue and there's so little text per page that in reality the books aren't all that long. So when they get to the end, both cognitive dissonance ("wow, I read this whole long book --> I must have liked it") and time perception ("wow, I don't remember this long book taking such a long time to read --> time flew by --> I must have liked it"), increase their opinion of the book. Add in some decently funny jokes, ensure the approval of the liberal intelligentsia, stir with a dollop of teen angst, and viola, you can explain the success of Harry Potter.

3) Note that the books didn't really take off until the 3rd and especially the 4th were published, when they started to look abnormally long:

Book 1 = 320 pages
Book 2 = 352 pages
Book 3 = 448 pages
Book 4 = 752 pages
Book 5 = 870 pages
Book 6 = 652 pages
Book 7 = 784 pages

4) My recommendation to authors is to write plenty of dialogue and pressure the publisher to include lots of numbered fluff pages at the front. Also check out my advice on how to make a paper look longer than it really is, which may turn out to be more profound than I had anticipated.

PS Wow, you just read a fairly long post with three links, four numbered points, and a ton of analysis --> You must have liked it --> You must have agreed with the theory.