Emily Reads 50 Shades Part 3: don't make it more than I can bear.

In today’s edition of Emily Reads 50 Shades, I want to discuss two important phenomena in social science: the ironic process, and social influence.


Don’t think about a bear.


Okay, now don’t find that bear sexy. Whatever you do, don’t imagine the warm soft fur brushing against your nipples. Don’t do it.

Are you getting turned on by the thought of bear fur on your nipples?


No. Not a pervert. Just another victim of the ironic process effect. The harder you try to do something, the more you fail, and the harder you try NOT to do something, the more you can’t help doing it.

And in the context of 50 Shades, it takes us back to the ambivalence = tension principle. We, as readers, have ambivalence about experiencing genital response when we read the book, and that very ambivalence actually makes us more likely to pick the fucker back up, so that we can resolve the ambiguity. Our discrepancy reducing feedback loops can’t rest.

To be honest, I’ve read sexually explicit stories to which I’ve responded with greater ambivalence. I’ve read Sade, for example. I’ve read Victorian incest porn. It’s genuinely part of my responsibility as a sex educator to be able to navigate my way through stuff that activates all kinds of avoidance responses in me, and process all of that to become more accepting of whatever my students bring into the classroom. And I’ll be honest, I experience genital response when I read the gross creepy shit. Of course I do. It’s “sexually relevant,” and my genitals know what they’re supposed to do whenever anything sexually relevant comes along.

But at the same time, gross and creepy. It’s RELEVANT but it’s not appealing – or in the case of an actual bear, completely terrifying. And that’s a puzzle we’re not often confronted with in our day to day lives, and so our discrepancy reducing feedback loops want to sort out. (But of course the THOUGHT of a bear is not at all the same thing as AN ACTUAL BEAR; in the same way, a fantasy that turns us on may or may not be something that in real life would turn us on.)

Moreover it’s NOVEL, as in previously unexperienced, which further increases activation in the mesolimbic cortex.

It keeps us reading.

Or anyway, skimming.

Or anyway, it gets a BIG FEEL out of us, whether positive or negative, and we talk to people about things that give us BIG FEELS, even if we don’t actually read the whole thing.


In a seriously, seriously brilliant study titled Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market (PDF), researchers created an online marketplace of songs. In one condition, they had several thousand college students rate 48 songs, and then they could download whatever songs they wanted. This gave them a sense of the average rating college students gave these 48 songs when the only information they had about the song was the song itself.

Then they created the same market, with the same songs, but this time they allowed participants to SEE OTHER PEOPLE’S RANKINGS.

Result: as they summarize in the abstract, “The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.”


An example from the NPR story about this research:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Remember, the goal of my analysis of the book is not to figure out what’s wrong with it – lots of people have already done that – but to figure out why it was so successful. What Sagalnick’s research suggests is that slight differences in initial conditions can utterly change the outcome of a product in the market.

A few factors that are controllable: It’s got a good title. I think the cover design is clever and appealing. I think the author’s name is easy to remember and pronounce. All these things are the elements you expect will help a book’s sales. But a very large proportion of what influences a book’s success are these uncontrollable things related to the initial conditions into which the book is released.

I made it through the first 10 chapters pretty well, but I admit that I’ve begun skimming. It has officially gotten wackadoo. The sex is somehow both pretty stupid and pretty troubling. IRL, Grey would be an unambiguous abuser – really, it’s obvious even to a vanilla gal like me that’s he’s not a sexual dom, he’s just an ASSHOLE.

I’m still trying though, right?

And finding sciencey ideas that might explain why people bought the thing.

I paid \$3 for it from Better World Books, so at least I have the consolation that it was cheap, I got it used (which saved paper), and it resulted in the donation of book somewhere.