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On Approval

On Approval

The opening episode of C4’s 2020 Great British Bake-Off was watched by a record-breaking 10.8 millions viewers, including an astonishing 2.8 million aged 16 to 34.

The final episode of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2020 was watched by 13.2 million viewers, prompting Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to call it: “A great reminder of the unique role TV … can play in lifting the nation through difficult times.”

Like so much programming, these shows allow audiences to share in the struggles, successes and failures of the competitors, and central to the success of the format is the approval of the judges. As viewers, we positively glow when our preferred contestant receives lavish praise from an acknowledged expert in the field. And all we did was flick on the TV, or guzzled a giant bowl of popcorn! So what is it that allows us to bathe in the on-screen glory?

In a nutshell, there are two ways that we feel emotions

Firsthand emotions …we feel something because something has happened to us.

Vicarious emotions … We feel something because something happens to someone else.

If we feel the same emotions as the person we are watching, it is called empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, or compassion, and it can work in a number of ways, according to a number of theories. Here are a few of them…


We have an inbuilt predisposition to imitate others.

You see a person who looks happy when the cork pops out of a champagne bottle and you automatically imitate the other person’s expression and smile. Your own smile then makes you feel happy too.

Classical Conditioning

Just like Pavlov’s dogs, our responses become conditioned through repetition and reinforcement:

Because some practitioners of The Business of Pleasure guzzle gallons of champagne, the sound of the champagne-cork popping, the neutral stimulus (NS), is paired with the act of quaffing Dom so often to become a conditioned stimulus (CS) that makes them feel happy as a conditioned response (CR).

In terms of vicarious empathic emotions, where we are watching someone else’s bottle uncork (e.g. on-screen, on-stage or in the garden opposite) we could feel their happiness empathically as a result of the ‘visual cue’ of seeing them smile, but it would also work they were turned away from us, or even if they weren’t aware the bottle had been opened (e.g. if they were wearing headphones in the deckchair) because the situation alone will be familiar enough (hopefully) for us to feel vicarious happiness at the sound of the cork popping.

Direct Association

Memories of a similar state or situation can evoke empathic emotions.

Even if you’ve only drunk champagne once, and can still remember the experience, seeing someone else’s emotional expression or situation will remind you of that past experience and conjure up the emotion you felt at the time.

Mediated Association

An account of a state or situation can evoke an empathic reaction:

It’s not necessary to see something happening in order to share the emotion empathically. Hearing someone describe the scene will work just as well: “…peeling back the seal, the rivulets of condensation trickling down the bottle, teasing out the cork, the foam cascading over the side of the flute.” Or, of course, just reading it on the page.

Mirror Neurons

The discovery of mirror neurons in the 1990s added a new neuroscientific dimension to the understanding of empathy. These fascinating molecules were first discovered in the brains of macaques, where they were observed to respond not only when the monkey peeled a banana, but also when the zookeeper peeled one. Some researchers have argued that mirror neurons are responsible for ‘all vicarious experiences of action, sensation, and emotion.’ Others have yet to be convinced.

For many of us in The Business of Pleasure, producing vicarious emotions in our audiences is our stock in trade, whether we conjure them up on-stage, on-screen, on the page …or maybe with just a few bars of music played in a minor key. And while our motivations in doing so may not be 100% altruistic, 100% of the time, there is evidence to suggest that our audiences can gain a significant health benefit from the repeated experience of empathic happiness over time. As one team of researchers put it: “Overall, we believe that happiness is a skill that may be harnessed/developed via the induction of empathic happiness.”

Vicarious Approval-Based Happiness -panacea or poison?

Nowadays most of us realize the perils of too much approval-seeking, so why should our hearts beat quite so loud and proud when someone we’ve never met is told, by someone else we’ve never met, that their custard cream slice has transcended the bounds of earthly confectionery and will be the last memory that they, the judge, the world’s greatest living authority on flaky pastry, will cling to when they make that final walk towards the light?

Maybe it’s because we don’t always feel that our own unique contributions are sufficiently well-appreciated by our …parents/partners/colleagues/bosses (DELETE AS APPROPRIATE) and so feel buoyed (momentarily) by a shot of vicarious vindication? Or maybe it goes deeper into the roots of our civilisation. The ‘Hero Myths’ of most cultures (as expressed in so many plays, films and novels manufactured by The Business of Pleasure) frequently involve the central character being cast out from their disapproving community, overcoming numerous challenges on the road, and then returning home in glory …where they are now welcomed to lashings of warm approval. As we know from the above, all these tales and legends rely on empathic emotions made possible via mediated associations

…and let’s face it, there’s no risk of carbs or cholesterol from a strictly-vicarious fatted calf.

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