Are You Watching This? Why Some Stories Captivate

From car chases to runaway balloons, certain stories arrest viewers' attention.

Oct. 17, 2009 — -- The public is bombarded daily with serious news about the health care debate, the economic downturn and two wars. Such complex stories can be like spinach for the brain -- somehow good for you but not necessarily palatable.

Maybe that's why when news broke that a 6-year-old boy was sailing through the Colorado sky in a saucer-shaped helium balloon, the story transfixed the nation. The story was simple, dramatic and literally spectacular.

The spinning silver balloon was in the sky for just two hours Thursday, but if you multiplied those two hours by, say, a million TV viewers who couldn't stop watching, that's still 228 years. That's more than two centuries' worth of human brain devoted to just a lot of hot air.

It's now known that the runaway ballon was a false alarm. Falcon Heene, the little boy who had supposedly gone up with his father's airborne experiment, never left the ground. It was a relief to discover he was safe and sound, hiding in the garage of his family's Fort Collins, Colo., home. But the discovery also let the air out of the whole drama.

Viewers thought these were life-or-death stakes. That's why a collective whole stared at a striking image of a slow-moving balloon. It wasn't just the picture. Let's face it: We like suspense.

The spectacle had the same appeal as O.J. Simpson's famous slow flight from police on a Los Angeles freeway in 1994. Helicopters trailed his white Bronco from the air as stunned viewers watched from home. The story was unsurpassed for suspense and sheer unpredictability. Would Simpson be caught? Would he use the gun he said he had with him? Would he run out of gas on the freeway? That's suspense.

Last winter, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in New York's Hudson River. We didn't know if the passengers would survive, or what catastrophe had brought the plane down.

In 2005, when the JetBlue plane with a twisted nose wheel came in for a landing at Los Angeles, we didn't know it they'd make it. But in both cases, if you turned it on, you couldn't turn it off.

Captivating a Nation With Empathy, Need for Resolution

The 1987 rescue of baby Jessica McClure, the toddler stuck in a well in Midland, Texas, captivated a huge audience. She was trapped below ground for 59 nail-biting hours as the world watched, even when there was nothing to see. But that's the point. It's the future you can't see, and the outcome you can't predict. That's what keeps us riveted.

Psychologists explain that such attentiveness to extreme circumstances isn't as voyeuristic as it may seem.

"Part of it is empathy," said Nando Pelusi, a clinical psychologist and contributing editor to Psychology Today. "I mean, we put ourselves in the circumstance. So, we're on that cliff, on a cliffhanger. We want to know how it's going to turn out, partly because we're invested."

Pamela Rutledge, director of the media psychology research center at Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, Calif., believes it's the story that keeps us so glued to these news events.

"The narrative is [a] very compelling motif for all human beings," Rutledge said. "It's how we make meaning of the world. It's how we put everything in context. So an open-ended narrative leaves us hanging. It leaves us needing some kind of closure."

Of course we love happy endings. We love that those passengers experienced a miracle on the Hudson, that the JetBlue plane landed safely, that baby Jessica was pulled from the well and grew up to have a baby of her own. But it's the disaster that didn't happen that makes us watch. If we don't feel it, then we don't really care.

We watched by the millions as humans journeyed into space and took their first steps on the moon, feeling so close to astronauts who were so far away. But then shuttle launches became routine. They just didn't seem dangerous enough. Then the Challenger explosion stunned and saddened the nation. Attention turned again to the space program, for a while anyway.

In some cases, suspense is missing. Thanks to improved polling, political elections can seem anticlimactic. Much of sports also lack suspense. When it's the Yankees playing the Washington Nationals -- really? Who cares? We pretty much know the outcome. (Sorry, Nats.) But any game that's bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth with a tied score -- we're captivated again.

So the balloon, live and unpredictable, had everything to make us watch. Everything, that is, but a boy onboard, thank goodness.

But if we'd known that all along, would anyone have cared?