What do Garfield and The Ghost Busters have in common with Donald Trump? Exaggerated facial expressions and storytelling. Turns out our brains are hard wired to stare at animated faces and seek out a good story. Like many cartoonish characters, Trump offers both.
Many Americans grew up watching cartoons with their simple but captivating storylines. The anthropomorphic Bugs Bunny always bested bumbling Elmer Fudd. Mr Jinks, the headstrong orange cat, never failed to shout “I hate meeces to pieces!” while Pixie and Dixie escaped effortlessly into their mouse hole. Meanwhile, Wile E. Coyote’s elaborate plans at catching the Road Runner blew up in a puff of smoke every time. And the unlucky Team Rocket dutifully returned on a regular basis in their never-ending quest to outwit Pokemon trainer extraordinaire, Ash Ketchum. The over-the-top expressions and simple plots didn’t change, but we tuned in week after week, sometimes year after year, for the same overblown characters and the same slapstick stories.
Enter Donald Trump, the reality TV show host who delivers dynamic facial expressions with weekly diatribes while running for president of the United States. “My whole life is about winning,” says Trump. “When someone challenges you, fight back. Be brutal. Be tough.”
Is it really so shocking then that The Donald has received over $2 Billion in free advertising from television, newspapers, magazines and social media? Our brains crave that one-two entertainment punch: an exaggerated character with a simple story.
When someone makes a funny face at us, our brains subconsciously recognize it instantly. Researchers at the Ohio State University recently used fMRI to pinpoint the area of the brain responsible for facial expressions and “how the brain is able to decode this information so efficiently. It’s on the right side of the brain behind the ear, in a region called the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS),” quoted Science Daily. The researchers also found that “neural patterns with the pSTS are specialized for recognizing specific parts of the face,” for example, one pattern detects a furrowed brow while another identifies a curled lip.
Recognizing friends from foes has always been a Darwinian imperative, and Scientific American elaborates on the facial connections in “Why our Brains Respond So Intensely to Exaggerated Characters. How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species.” But faces tell only one part of the story.
Our species also loves narrative. Marketers have known this for years. “Our greedy little brains are hungry for a good story, so if you want to make the sale, forget the data and make a personal connection,” says the business magazine, Fast Company.
With our brains wired for animated faces and always looking for a good story, it’s no wonder we’re riveted by this campaign season. And like it or not, can’t look away.