Savvy Saturday – The Power of Psychology

As authors, we want to have our characters be real to life as much as possible. This means that we not only have to tell a good story, but we have to understand how and why people behave the way they do. Sometimes this is easy – sometimes people behave logically and in ways that make sense. Other times, however, people’s behaviors are driven by psychological realities that aren’t obvious on their surface. The more we understand the sociology and psychology of human behavior as authors, the more nuanced and realistic the characters we can write. Today’s blog post, then, gives an introduction to two psychological effects that can impact our characters: mere exposure effect, and the effect of cognitive dissonance.

Mere Exposure Effect

First identified by Zajonc in 1963, the mere exposure effect identifies the strange fact that as humans, we prefer things we are familiar with to things we are unfamiliar with. His original psychological experiments found that people liked nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols that they had heard before in the lab better than nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols they had not heard before. The same has been found to hold true for sounds, images of faces, tastes, and so forth.

What does this finding mean for novelists? Well, first, perhaps that people tend to “rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of,” to quote Hamlet. The man enslaved to the evil king may resist freedom simply because he knows he can bear the life he has now, as miserable as it is, and does not know what freedom will hold. Similarly, if a character is thrown together “randomly” with a stranger several times, the character will tend to like and trust that stranger more than he/she will trust a “real” stranger, no matter how actually trustworthy either of those individuals might be. Characters that see their friends trying and eating a particular foreign dish, even if it seems strange at first, will probably find that particular dish less strange after a while than they would a different unfamiliar dish, even if they are equivalent in terms of objective foreignness. Of course, this effect can also lead to xenophobia: what we know is good, and what we don’t know is bad. Characters raised in metropolitan areas where they have been exposed to a large number of cultures and practices are likely to be more tolerant and accepting than characters raised in a single, limited cultural context. This also means that the more than a character is exposed to a behavior or belief – even if there is never an argument made for it and even if it is never actually brought up in conversation – the more the character will come to accept it implicitly.

Cognitive Dissonance

We all know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. But can behavior drive attitudes and beliefs? People who haven’t studied social psychology tend to say no. Surely our minds control our actions, and we don’t do things that we don’t agree with, right? Actually, science shows us that far more often than we’d think, our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by the things that we do. One of the things that humans are hard-wired to hate is hypocrisy – when people (and especially ourselves) say or believe one thing and do another. If we find ourselves doing something that conflicts with our beliefs, we tend to find ourselves justifying our actions, explaining them away, and actually changing what we feel and believe to make our actions make sense to ourselves. In other words, when a character helps someone, that helping behavior actually causes the character to like the helped person more, and conversely, if a character acts toward someone in a way that is not helpful, that action also tends to drive beliefs that the victim deserved what they got.

Dictators know very well the power of cognitive dissonance. Convince people that it’s okay in one particular instance to do something that conflicts with their belief system – for instance, bow to a statue just once, or on one particular day attend a rally that “everyone” is going to be at – and people’s wills will start to crumble. “It must be okay to bow to a statue at least sometimes,” people will think to themselves, “because I did it, and I wouldn’t do something that I don’t think is okay.” The next time the dictator orders them to do something similar, or even more extreme, the action doesn’t present as big as a threat to the individual’s self-image. “Just showing up to a rally” becomes “just saying the pledge of loyalty once” becomes “just putting one’s name on the roll of the loyalist party.” And if you’ve actually joined the loyalist party, then surely you must agree with at least some of what they believe in – mustn’t you? Psychologists tell us yes.

How might you use the mere exposure or cognitive dissonance effects in your stories? What stories have you seen with use them well to explain character motivations? Leave a comment below!

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