You experience fascination when you see, hear, or otherwise encounter something that you did not know before and that somehow arouses your curiosity. For example, when you stumble upon a story in the newspaper that you find very intriguing, when you see a bridge with only a single point of suspension that boggles your mind, or when you hear about a person who resolved a difficult situation that is similar to your own.
For something to evoke fascination, there are three basic requirements. First, the piece of information needs to be novel: new, unfamiliar, unexpected, ambiguous, complex, mysterious, or obscure. You can be fascinated by something that you did not yet know, or something you knew but forgot. Secondly, you need to feel able to comprehend the information – otherwise it will evoke confusion instead. For example, abstract art can be bewildering to novice art viewers, but interesting to experts, because the latter are able to relate the art piece to what they already know and have seen before. Anything that will help the novice viewer to better understand the art, such as information about the artist or the movement, might help increase their interest. These two requirements are sometimes at odds with each other. Something needs to be unfamiliar to evoke fascination, but not so unfamiliar or strange as to become incomprehensible. Designer Raymond Loewy captured this tension in the concept of MAYA: ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’. Or, as he put it: “To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”
The third requirement is that the new information is somehow relevant to you or your interests. A novel bridge construction may fascinate one person, while leaving another cold. How can you predict what is relevant to someone? The classical definition of ‘relevant’ is anything that touches upon someone’s goals, needs, or interests. For example, reading something about an important development in your profession is relevant because it might help you at your work. However, people also take an interest in things that have little to do with their immediate goals, such as birdwatching or stamp collecting. Nevertheless, if you know about a person’s life, interests, and hobbies, you will at least be able to make some predictions about what will fascinate them.
Although fascination is a positive emotion, the stimulus that evokes it does not have to be positive. You can also feel an urge to approach and explore a negative stimulus, which would normally evoke fear or disgust. For example, you can be fascinated by tragedies, disturbing stories, or provocative art due to their novelty. In this case, you experience ‘morbid fascination’1). Things that are both familiar and positive, on the other hand, are very pleasant to deal with, but seldomly fascinating.
Fascination is one of the so-called ‘knowledge emotions’, together with confusion, surprise, and awe. Its function is to motivate learning and exploration, and thereby ensure that people develop a broad set of knowledge and skills. Fascination is an intrinsic reward that starts and maintains a person’s engagement with the environment. For example, fascinated students persist longer at learning, spend more time studying, read more deeply, remember more of what they read, and get better grades2. On some level, people seem to understand that fascination enhances their performance, so when faced with a boring task, they may use strategies to make it more fascinating (e.g., a mathematics teacher tells the students anecdotes about famous mathematicians, or uses mathematic puzzles to make the class more fascinating). And while things cease to evoke fascination once they become familiar, the new knowledge opens doors to more potentially interesting things.
When you feel fascinated, your scope of attention is narrowed to the stimulus of interest. You typically stop in your tracks and approach the stimulus to inspect whether it is worthy of further attention. Fascination is characterized by a ‘hard stare’: your eyes and head tend to be fixed on the object of interest, often with the head tilted, which aids in tracking objects and sounds; you blink less frequently and with shorter durations of eyes closed. Fascinated people also tend to talk faster.
People differ a great deal in how prone they are to be fascinated. In psychology, this is covered by one of the Big Five of personality traits: Openness to Experience. People who score high on this trait embrace new stimuli and experiences, and are more curious about new and unconventional ways of thinking and doing.