Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Do We Need High-Conflict Judges? (On American Idol, that is!)

There’s a high-level policy discussion going on in America right now: Should the American Idol judges be mean? After all, Simon Cowell had a reputation for mean – and people loved him for it! Can the show survive without the emotional tension of wondering who’s going to get the next surprise blast of biting criticism? Will J. Lo and company be too nice – and boring?


What makes American Idol work is the intense emotions and unpredictability. It’s a spectator sport. These emotions don’t have to include mean sarcasm and direct put-downs. All intense emotions, positive and negative, hook our brains into paying close attention. Someone who’s trying really, really, really hard – or someone who’s really, really sad and tearful – will get our attention.

Brain scientists say that our amygdalas (which grab our attention in an emergency as a kind of “smoke alarm”) are particularly sensitive to facial expressions of fear and anger. Just watch the movie The King’s Speech for a great example of how tense the audience can get when Colin Firth is sweating and stuttering and you’re on the edge of your seat because you don’t know if he’s going to be able to speak at all.

There wasn’t a lot of anger or sarcasm or disrespect in that movie (although a little of each), yet it won Colin a Golden Globe for Best Actor and it’s being considered for best picture. And he was a Brit! So those who think the “mean seat” needs to be filled by a Brit like Simon – because they’re so much "better" at talking mean – don’t know what they’re talking about. America has plenty of high-conflict personalities - and we love watching them (but not living with them, working with them, or having them as neighbors).

Any intense emotion, combined with intense competition, should do the job. J. Lo and company will do fine, so long as they can show lots of intense joy, fear, embarrassment, shame, sadness, jealousy, caring, honesty and even some anger – but it doesn’t have to be mean.

And if the ratings go down - just bring in Colin Firth!

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