Derek Thompson on Hit Making

There's art and science to pop-culture success.

This week on our Masters in Business radio podcast, we speak with Derek Thompson of the Atlantic magazine, author of “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.” 

Thompson explains why certain songs, movies, books, paintings and theater productions become hits when similar products of equal merit fail to catch on. He elaborated on the concept of “fluency and disfluency” -- how we tend to like things that are familiar yet new and different, but not too different.

Repetition is a key part of what we recognize, like and appreciate. Thompson explains how this critical tension exists between “neophilia” (love of novelty) and “neophobia” (dislike of anything new). In short, audiences simultaneously crave the new even as they fear it.

The sweet spot is what Thompson calls the “aesthetic aha,” or that space in between the familiar and the surprising. This is why many rock and pop songs sound so familiar (“No Woman, No Cry,” “Paparazzi,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “With You or Without You,” just to cite a few), relying on similar chord structures (typically C, G, A minor, F).

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    Barry Ritholtz at

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