The Mere-Exposure Effect: How Casey Neistat Makes Pop-Songs
After watching a Casey Neistat vlog, something peculiar often happens. All day long I’ll find myself humming parts of the music from an episode. He’s created an earworm.
A catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind.
Earworms aren’t peculiar though. They happen all the time. Just listen to a top 10 list on your way to work. You’ll be humming something too probably. What makes this peculiar is that the same song itself from the musicians SoundCloud page isn’t all that earwormy to me.
I mean no offense to the wonderful musicians often found in Casey’s work like Andrew Applepie, Jeff Kaale, and Maxzwell, but there’s something going on when these songs are mixed into Casey’s vlog.
What secret magic is Casey adding to these tunes?
David Huron is a professor in two different departments at Ohio State University. The School of Music AND the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. That makes David an incredibly useful authority on things like earworms.
In 2013, David asked the question: “Suppose a composer wants to create a musical work that listeners find enjoyable, but requires the least amount of work on the part of the composer.”
That sounds like two interesting problems. Is there an algorithm for making “enjoyable” art? And can it be optimized?
So David created a series of strategies based on two psychological concepts: the mere exposure effect and habituation.
The mere exposure effect originally came to us from Robert B. Zajonc’s experiments showing people nonsense characters that might resemble the Chinese language. When people were asked which character they prefered if given a choice, 92% of the time people chose the character they had seen more often. These experiments have been replicated over and over again. We humans like things we’ve been exposed to before. We like repetition.
Except one problem.
I’m writing this in my house next to an air filter blowing out at its Max setting. It used to bother me when I first turned it on. It doesn’t anymore. I’ve become habituated to it.
Our lives are full of stimuli we’ve become habituated to. They may have at first intrigued you, maybe even startled you, but now, these noises, sights, smells, etc. become “old hat”. And that’s a good thing! If every stimulus around you was as exciting as the first time you encountered it, you could hardly walk across a room without being distracted. You’d operate like a new born baby. Your own shirt would make you nuts.
So habituation is necessary, but it’s also death to creators. If you make something that people habituate to, they stop paying attention and find interest in something else. To create the music David Huron has in mind, we need repetition but we need it in a way where we don’t habituate.
That’s where mice come in.
If you play a loud note, an A, for a mouse, it exhibits what’s called the “startle response”. The mouse freezes.
And if you play that note repeatedly, as you’d expect, the mouse habituates and stops freezing. But if you change that note to a very different note, let’s say a B, the mouse freezes once again. But where this really gets interesting is that after the B, if you then returned to playing an A, the mouse will freeze up once again.
By playing a different note you’ve “dishabituated” the mouse. Now, things don’t just return to where they were. If you play A repeatedly again, the mouse will habituate faster this time. And if you think you can get away with just playing ABABAB forever, the mouse will habituate to that too. So if you want this mouse to keep paying attention for as long as possible, you need to strategically dishabituate the animal.
Going back to Huron’s quest to create enjoyable music with as little work as possible. The mouse experiments show us a way.
Repetition of a note, or a segment like A, will cause an exposure effect in our listeners. But if we just played A over and over: AAAAAAAA.
They’d begin to ignore us. Huron would then introduce a B. And the optimal place to use a B is to maximize the amount of repetition of A while still dishabituating people: AAAABAAABAABAB
Now a composer has a minimal way of continuing to elongate that sequence. Introduce a C:
Derek Thompson, the author of the book Hit Makers, who introduced me to Hudson’s research also noticed something of Hudson’s algorithm. Look at the section:
As Thomsons explains in his book, if A was a verse in a song, and B was the chorus, and C is the bridge:
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Verse.
You’d have a pop song. This is the skeleton of almost every pop song on the radio right now. Go on, pull up Spotify or YouTube to find a new song release. You’ll hear it. The repetition of the verse. The repetition of the chorus. When you might be getting sick of the repetition, there’s the bridge. Finally, there’s a verse again.
Repeat, repeat, dishabituate, repeat, dishabituate, ad nauseum.
And that’s what keeps us hooked.
Let’s pick an episode of Casey’s vlog from early in his daily vlogging adventure: Weekends are for shopping. I picked it based on Social Blade’s “Highest Ranked” videos (ratio of Likes to Dislikes). It’s also a fairly mundane topic, but clearly people have enjoyed it.
It starts with a “pre-intro” clip where Casey sees something unusual, a man riding a very high bike:
Then it goes into an introduction, where we see a time-lapse of buildings in New York City. The intro also gives us a set of intro credits telling us whose video it is (Casey’s of course), when it’s being filmed, and where.
Music drops in.
Then we go to a Casey monologue about weekends in New York, we hear the same intro music playing but very quietly. Next, Casey talks to the camera about what he’s up to. Saturday morning run. What follows is a sequence of: talking to the camera, music montage using the same music, talking to the camera, music montage.
Then, we have a long section of the video where he shows us how he takes a time-lapse of New York on the roof of his building. After the long interlude, we have more monologue + music montage + monologue + music montage using a second song that was introduced.
You see what I see?
If Casey’s music is a verse, and his monologues are the chorus, and his long how-to interludes are the bridge, you see a pattern a lot like:
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Verse
Go through Casey’s whole vlog collection. 95% of them show a pattern like this. Music montage + monologue + music montage + monologue + interlude + music montage + monologue, with enough differences (long workshop chats, new music, new location) to dishabituate you.
Casey also has a great instinct for recognizing when people are habituated to his work and style, so he changes his overarching patterns. After days of “vlog” episodes he dishabituates us with a Q&A or a long session of opening mail - interludes made up of something very different than we got the day before. Or he films an attempt at a viral video with snowboarding in the streets of New York during a blizzard, or pretending he’s catching Pokemon during the app craze a couple years ago. These radically different videos from his vlogs, dishabituate us.
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Casey has read David Huron and has formulated the rigid structure I outline. I just think Casey has found a natural rhythm to his work that happens to share a lot of the rhythm and pacing of a pop song. And it’s become natural to him. Also, I don’t think that any single thing I write about Casey’s strategies or tactics are the sole reason he’s catchy, or popular, or viral, etc. There are many qualities to his work that I haven’t even begun to touch on, like his skill at storytelling and long hours of practice.
But I do think his knack for repetition and dishabituation is a skill we can all learn and apply to our own work to see a significant effect. So go out and make some pop-songs.
P.S. If you enjoy these topics, you should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how I run a business, do product design, market myself, and just get through life.