Use of Engagement as an Approximation of Merit

Wondering what the publishing industry would think about my crazy idea: instead of asking an intern for coverage on a manuscript, scan her brain while she reads it and measure for boredom. The least boring manuscripts should get a pass.

Use of Engagement as an Approximation of Merit

Never before has it been easier to publish a book. Advances in technology and the affordances of the internet allow us to print on demand and reach readers in the remotest parts of the planet. For the same reasons, never before has it been more difficult to be a successful author. With so many books published every year, both in paper and electronically, and easy and immediate access to other media competing for potential readers’ attention, reaching the right audience—or any at all—has become increasingly difficult.

Authors published by traditional publishers have the best chance of achieving success. Yet, publishers and literary agents are drowned with so many queries that, oftentimes, the decision on whether to accept or reject a manuscript from the “slush pile” lies on an intern, who must ask herself not whether she enjoyed the reading of the manuscript in hand but whether it could sell. Many times, the answer depends more so on what this intern believes her boss and other people believe makes a book worth reading, that is, on injunctive and descriptive norms (see O’Keefe, 2015), than on her actual judgment of the manuscript. What could become a literary success is, thus, rejected for lacking any apparent commercial value; what lacks entertaining value is accepted because it is perceived as what others think it is what people want to read now.

Inspired by the Berns and Moore’s study that suggests that analyzing neural activity in the reward-related regions can predict the popularity of music among the general population better that self-reports of likability (Berns & Moore, 2012), we propose to give a heavier weight to the perceived level of engagement of a manuscript, as measured through neuromarketing tools such as fMRI, or other forms of neuroimaging, EEG or eye-tracking, than to self-reports alone when evaluating such manuscript’s merit and worthiness of publication. We believe that the measurement of subconscious processes while performing an activity can prove to be a better predictor of enjoyment than self-reports because the former are driven mainly by emotion, while the latter include subjective valuations of injunctive and descriptive norms and are subject to the framing effects of memory and self-censure (Berns & Moore, 2011).

Berns and Moore’s study used perceived likability as indicated by the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral striatum as a predictor of whether a song would become a commercial success (Berns & Moore, 2012). However, reading a good manuscript could arouse not only positive but also negative affective responses, such as sadness, anger, fear, and even disgust, especially when identification with the characters occur (Oatley, 2002), and still be a good manuscript. Therefore, we prefer engagement as an approximation of merit over likability measured through indications of positive affect. Simply put, we will call a manuscript worth of being published if it’s highly engaging, regardless of the valence of the emotions aroused.

Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory predicts that task engagement results from satisfying the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Measuring whether these needs are satisfied while reading a text would require conscious and probably subjective judgment, however. Miller defines engagement as the “quantity and quality of mental resources directed at an object of thought” (Miller, 2015; p. 33) which makes the level of engagement a function of neural activity, easy to measure with EGG or neuroimaging. His definition does not consider motivation, however, making it incompatible with transportation, the phenomenon in which a reader loses herself into a story (Green & Brock, 2002). Thus, for our purposes, we’ll define engagement as the intrinsic desire to continue performing an activity until halted by boredom, and use increased brain activity and a negative valence of boredom as indicators of the level of engagement.

Boredom is an “aversive state that occurs when it is not possible to achieve an optimal level of arousal through engagement with the environment.” (Mathiak, Klasen, Zvyagintsev, Weber, & Mathiak, 2013). Bench and Lench define boredom as the internal urge to pursuit an alternative goal when the current situation is no longer emotionally stimulating (Bench & Lench, 2013). For Toohey (2011), boredom is an emotion related to the primary emotion of disgust, and just like disgust prevents us from getting too close to what could result in sickness, boredom prevents us from engaging in activities that bring no apparent benefit or could be toxic—such as reading an uninteresting book.

As humans, we have an innate thirst for acquiring knowledge, thirst that is heightened by the reward mechanisms of the brain. After satisfactorily reaching a goal, the release of high amounts of dopamine that subsequently occurs makes us want to repeat the actions that resulted in this extra release of the neurotransmitter (Willis, 2014). We’re hooked on pleasure, and when this comes at variable rather than predictable rates, our desire to be pleased only grows (Eyal, 2012). Thus, we waste hours swapping channels, hoping to find something worth watching on TV, or clicking links on Reddit, hoping to get a short fix of happiness. At the same time, we avoid complex cognitive tasks when the perceived reward to be attained, compared to the effort required, is none or little (Jabr, 2012). That is, we avoid not what will exhaust us, but what bores us. Since choice is driven by emotions, it is the deterioration of affect what leads to boredom, and boredom what makes us “disengage from current goal pursuits” (Willis, 2014; p. 461) and switch to more meaningful and rewarding activities. Valuation of what is rewarding and meaningful is, of course, an unconscious process ultimately vetted by conscious thinking (Ramsøy, 2015). Both processes rely on memory: Boredom tempts us to stop working and spend time on social media instead, but risk assessment, fear of punishment, or the promise of a delayed reward, makes us force ourselves to continue working. Thus, boredom is itself a function of one’s own memories, preferences, and skills, as well as our current mood and our inherent tendency to be bored (Toohey, 2011). Our suggestion to use boredom as an approximation to measure engagement is, therefore, under the assumption that readers’ competences and preferences will match the complexity of the texts to be evaluated, and that only readers that are neither prone to be bored nor too easily contented should be considered, conditions which can be revealed by having them take the Boredom Proneness Scale developed by Norman Sundberg (Toohey, 2011).

Boredom has a physiological effect that can be measured by studying brain activity and behavior. As a stressor, boredom prevents the amygdala to allow information perceived through the senses to reach the prefrontal cortex, because this information is subconsciously recognized as irrelevant or toxic, effectively preventing any understanding to be constructed into long-term memory. In a bored state, the prefrontal cortex loses communication with the rest of the brain, resulting in involuntary behavioral responses: from deep sighs, rolling eyes, droopy eyes, and mind wandering, to even self-mutilating (Willis, 2014).

Neuroimaging reveals that bored individuals show less activity in the prefrontal cortex and more in the lower brain, that controls behavior (Willis, 2014). Likewise, greater activation of the insula, related to disgust and avoidance responses, and lesser of the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, related to approach behavior, can indicate boredom. On the other hand, increased hippocampal activity and a higher index of prefrontal asymmetry would indicate a higher level engagement (Mathiak et al., 2013; Ramsøy, 2015).

In the absence of neuroimaging, whose costs could be prohibitive because of the expensive equipment and high level of expertise required to make a proper analysis of the data, an EEG showing higher changes in signal amplitude can be an indication of increased mental activity and thus of a higher level of engagement. Self-pace reading, by measuring overall reading speed, and eye-tracking, by measuring fixation and reading patterns, can also indicate engagement. Engaged readers will slow down their reading to better comprehend a text, especially complicated texts, while disengaged readers will read at a higher speed due to lack of interest (Miller, 2015). Fixation too can reveal whether every word in a text lay within the reader’s foveal view for at least a minimum period of time, sufficient to interpret its meaning, and whether some re-reading occurred, for difficult or ambiguous words, or interesting sentences, both activities an indication of higher engagement, or whether entire words or paragraphs were skipped, an indication of boredom (Miller, 2015).

Other observed behavioral changes, such as changes in posture can reveal boredom: the deep sighs and rolling eyes mentioned above, hands on cheeks, elbows on a desk, or slouching, whereas a closer distance to the screen or the printed material combined with pupil dilation, and face gestures that reveal inner emotions, can indicate engagement. Changes in respiration and pulse, too, can indicate whether the text arouses an emotional response.

Whether extrapolating the results of neural analyses from individuals to the general population could in fact predict popularity hasn’t been fully demonstrated, but studies like the one from Berns and Moore (2012) suggest a significant correlation of brain activity with likability, which, expanded to engagement, could be a better form to judge a manuscript than beliefs based on injunctive and descriptive norms and with no actual data to support them. More experiments are required, but it is not far fetched to recommend listening to instinct, especially when it is other’s instincts what one tries to predict. Rather than discounting neural analyses that do not always match, we should study under which conditions they do and bet on cultural universals rather than potentially ephemeral trends. In the long run, investing in neuroscience could be the most cost effective decision a publisher, or any music or film producer, for that matter, could do.


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