After reading the two different descriptions, the students were asked to judge the Chandorans on various characteristics. Students indicated that the Chandorans who were described as turtle eaters lived long lives and were good swimmers. Students told that the Chandorans ate boar meat judged the tribe as aggressive and as more likely to have beards.
The judgments the students made are indicative of something called the “representativeness heuristic.” A heuristic is a mental short cut that allows humans to decrease the mental effort required to make a decision. It does not guarantee that the decision will be the correct one, but its ease of use makes it very common. The representativeness heuristic is based on the concept of “like goes with like.” Marine turtles are long lived and are good swimmers, so the people who supposedly ate the turtles were thought to have these characteristics too. You are what you eat according to this thinking. Because boars are aggressive and hairy, those who supposedly ate boar meat were also judged as aggressive and hairy. Like goes with like.
Although the Chandorans were made up and, thus, there was no connection between their eating habits and characteristics, and despite the fact that this kind of relationship does not generally hold up where ‘real’ populations are concerned, human beings routinely make this kind of connection. And because they do, writers can exploit the tendency to add depth to their cultures and characters. Consider the Vhichang from my Talera series of fantasy novels. The Vhichang are bipeds with feathers and a beak-like facial feature. Also on Talera we find the Nokarra. The Nokarra are bipedal, too, but furred, clawed, and with bodily characteristics that are more similar to those of big cats such as lions and leopards than to birds.
Because of these simple descriptive characteristics, readers will be inclined to accept without question that the Vhichang are better than the Nokarra at controlling the “saddle birds” that people on Talera ride. They will accept that the Nokarra are more physically impressive warriors than the Vhichang, and that they have heavier bodies, even though I specifically say that the Vhichang do not have hollow bones like earth birds do. If, however, I wanted to convince my readers that the Vhichang were far better warriors than the Nokarra on a physical, one on one basis, I’d really have to work at it. And, many folks would still ‘feel’ as if it were unbelievable, even though it’s all made up fantasy and they wouldn’t know ‘why’ it seemed unbelievable that a Vhichang could easily best a Nokarra.
Heuristics are such a common and unconscious part of human thinking processes that most of us don’t even realize when we’re relying on them. But being aware of them can help a writer create a sense of things being “true” for readers even when they are completely made up.