The Weird Reasons You Love Amusement Parks

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Summertime is practically synonymous with roller coasters, carnival games, and funnel cake. Most of us have fond memories of amusement parks from childhood, and many of us still make regular trips there as an adult. (Yes, even those of us who don't have kids of our own!) 

Yesterday, a fun feature in the Boston Globe looked at precisely why we love these parks so much. It's more complicated than one might think, and it has as much to do with savvy marketing and brain science as it does with thrilling rides and junk food. "The modern amusement park is, beneath the flash and the chaos, a carefully tuned psychological machine," the article states. 

Here are a few ways our brains can be "hijacked" by amusement parks, according to design experts, psychologists, and historians, and what you can expect when you pay one a visit this season. 

1. Scary (but safe) rides make us feel alive. It's no surprise to anyone who's ever dropped to their near death on Disney World's Tower of Terror or screamed their way through a ride on Coney Island's rickety Cyclone (seriously, that thing feels like it could break at any second): Terrifying experiences can make us feel pretty euphoric once we're back on solid ground. And we enjoy those experiences even more, experts say, when we're within a "protective frame" that assures us that deep down, we're still safe. 

2. Love is in the air.  Amusement parks are a great place to take a date, and not just because you can grab his hand on the aforementioned scary rides (although that's certainly a plus) Anthropologist Helen Fisher says that people tend to become attracted to each other when they're in "novel and exciting" situations, like on vacation or while walking around a (quite literal) fantasy world. Use this to your advantage, ladies, but make sure your amusement-park-induced romance holds up in real-life situations too.

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3. It's no coincidence that you "almost" won that giant teddy bear. Classic carnival games are designed to capitalize on what scientists call the "near-miss effect:" It's easy to get very close to your target or to progressively improve, so you keep spending money, thinking that you'll get it the next time. Spoiler alert: They're a lot harder than they appear. By all means have fun, but don't fall victim to this common mind trick.

4. Long lines make us appreciate the rides more. They're arguably the worst part of amusement parks on hot summer days, but research suggests that waiting in line makes us appreciate the outcome more than we would if we'd simply walked right on. And it doesn't have to be miserable: Focus on the number of people in line behind you (rather than the number in front of you), suggests a 2010 study, to keep your excitement from diminishing.  

5. Big crowds encourage us to pig out. It's not just the amazing smell wafting from the cotton candy cart that makes us so likely to splurge on less-than-healthy theme-park fare. Research suggests that being surrounded by strangers (e.g. giant park crowds) makes us feel anonymous, less accountable for our actions, and more likely to indulge in behaviors we wouldn't otherwise. We're not saying you shouldn't enjoy some fried dough now and then, but maybe keeping this tidbit in mind can help you from getting swept up in a full-on binge. After all, summer isn't just amusement park season—it's bikini season as well.

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