Part of being a writer is exploring the human experience as it is truly lived. Even in a fantasy or science fiction setting, one’s characters need to feel real. We all know this. It’s a truism, a proverb, easier to say glibly than to actually carry out in one’s writing. Why? For one thing, human beings are complex. Part of this complexity is the fact that we aren’t always rational. We make biased choices based on feelings and heuristics – rules of thumb – that can lead us to make different decisions when presented with exactly the same data. Moreover, our brains work very differently than we often think they do. We plan one thing and do another. We’re swayed by emotion and situational characteristics and the way questions are worded. Even our memories are malleable.
Today’s post features just a few findings about the irrationality of the human brain that I’ve recently studied for my PhD classes. Whether you’re a writer or simply an interested reader, I hope you find them useful. Personally, I know I’m going to keep these facts in mind and use them to make my characters more complex and realistic.
Finding 1: People hate losing. (Prospect theory, endowment effect)
Which would you rather have? A one percent chance of winning a thousand dollars, or a $5 dollar bill handed to you right now? Most people would take the $5, even though statistically, the one percent chance of $1000 is “worth more.” The opposite, however, holds for losses. Human beings don’t like to lose. Most people would rather have an 80% chance of losing $4000 than a certainty of losing $3000, even though again, statistically, the first option is worse for your pocketbook (Kahneman and Tversky 1979).
This phenomenon is known as “loss aversion.” People really, really don’t like to give up what they have, far more than they want to gain something that they don’t have. This then translates into the “status quo bias,” where what you have right now is valued more than any change, even a change for the better. Similarly, once you own something, that thing suddenly “gains value” in your opinion beyond what it was worth moments before. People who are given a pen or a coffee mug in psychology experiments consistently refuse to sell it at the “market price” just a few minutes later, and instead set a much higher price on it than it is worth. Once an item is owned by you, you don’t want to give it up even for a “fair” amount of money that you could spend on something that you’d probably like more than the item you were given.
How does this transfer to the world of fiction writing? Easily. Threaten your character with the loss of something he/she values, and watch him move heaven and earth to keep that threat from being realized. Is your story set in a dystopian world? Instead of promising a character riches and luxury for doing some nefarious deed, simply have the rulers give the character a better life – new clothes, good food, etc. – then threaten to send him back to his former servitude unless he cooperates. Far more nefarious. Far more effective.
Finding 2: The way a choice is framed will influence what decision is made (Framing)
A company is giving bonuses to teams based on the number of working ideas they contributed to the company over the past year. One manager reads about a fantastic team that proposed 10 ideas, and 7 of them worked wonderfully, making significant profit for the company. Unsurprisingly, she approves a bonus for this team. A different manager reads about a team that also proposed 10 ideas, but 3 of them were abject failures, and resulted in significant loses for the company. Unsurprisingly, this team does not get a bonus.
Except…these teams are identical (Dunegan 1993).
Framing an issue in a positive or a negative light makes a huge difference in how people respond to it. Giving a city a vaccine that will save 60% of its population from a devastating plague (but not save the other 40% from certain death) is a much better option in people’s minds than giving a city an experimental drug that will kill 40% of its members but keep 60% safe from an impending doom. Having a dealer apologetically not give you a $10 discount on a $100 item because you aren’t a club member is much better than having a dealer apologetically charge you an additional $10 fee on a $90 item because you aren’t a club member.
If your character wants to manipulate someone, then, the easiest way to do it is to focus attention on the (true) negative or positive aspects of a choice. For instance, knowing that a magic sword can kill ogres, giants, and trolls is very different from knowing that it can’t kill dragons. This is also a way to have characters argue with each other very effectively. If one person sees only the benefits of making a certain choice, and the other sees only the negatives, they will be very unlikely to come to an agreement even if they have all the same facts.
Finding 3: Learning, memory, and experience aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (Experiential learning)
That’s all very well, but that old hero’s memories might be playing more tricks on him than he’d like to believe. We like to trust memories and our own experience more than what other people tell us – memory is vivid, supposedly objective, and engages all our senses, whereas learning from others is more distant and is possibly biased. Unfortunately, our own memories are just as fallible, and sometimes even more misleading, than what we learn from others.
Of course, we all know that we find what we expect to find. Humans are incredibly good at confirming things that may or may not be true. This is called the confirmation bias, and happens all the time. We come up with a hypothesis that something is true, then we look to see if the data support our hypothesis, rather than seeking to disconfirm it. In writing language, we see if the world makes sense given the story we’ve told ourselves, rather than looking to see if there are plot holes.
“I’m thinking of a rule for picking numbers,” we tell someone. “With this rule, I’ve picked the numbers 2, 4, 12, and 16, as well as others. You may ask me whether any particular number fits my rule, and when you’re certain about what the rule is, make your guess.” Our poor confirmation-bias target guesses 14, and is told yes. He guesses 20, and is told yes again. He guesses 110, and is told yes a third time. He confidently states that our rule is any number that can be divided by two. But he’s wrong. Our rule was any positive or negative whole number. Whoops.
With enough effort, people can be trained to avoid confirmation bias. It’s much harder to avoid the effects of faulty memory. Many of us have heard about the experiment where two sets of people see the same video of a car crash. One group then is asked to judge how fast the cars were going when they “bumped” one another, while another is asked how fast they were going when they “smashed into” one another. A while later, both groups are asked whether or not they saw broken glass in the video. (There was no broken glass shown.) The group that had been given the “smashed” language were far more likely to report having seen broken glass, and remember it just as certainly as the other group remembered not seeing broken glass.
Similarly, in the world of advertising, people who were given test orange juice – actually vinegar, water, and orange flavoring – obviously rated it as tasting horrible. Half of them, though, were then shown an advertisement that talked about how good, fresh, and wonderful (like drinking an orange through a straw!) that brand of juice tasted. A while later, the two groups were asked to again rate their juice experience. The ones who had seen the ad after drinking the vinegar-water rated it as tasting better, and in fact, tasting like drinking an orange through a straw (Braun 1999).
Thinking about your writing, what do your characters remember – for sure! – that just isn’t so? What decisions do your characters make where the facts seem to fit what they believe, but only because they didn’t look too hard to prove themselves wrong? When do your characters rely on their memories and their expertise because it’s just easier, even when they really shouldn’t?
(For that matter, when do you?)
Thinking through these questions and writing characters with realistic cognitive biases will not only make your story more gripping, it will make your characters, even the non-human ones, more realistic. For instance, an elephant’s memory – though vivid – could be completely inaccurate. And dragons, as we all know, have an extreme aversion to loss. So put your biases to work, and make your characters human.