Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Tool of the Writing Trade

In 1989, two psychologists, (Nemeroff & Rozin) introduced college students at the University of Pennsylvania to the “Chandorans,” a made-up tribe who supposedly hunted wild boar and marine turtles as part of their cultural behaviors. Half the students learned that the Chandorans hunted boar for their meat and turtles for their shells. The others were told that the turtles were hunted for meat and the boar for their tusks.

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.

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30 comments:

ivan said...

"Representativeness heuristic", huh?

My old english prof, Eric Wright, a Keats scholar, called it "negative capability"--a lazy acceptance of given fictional positing,no matter how odd to the reational mind. For example, I guess, the Hohyhynyms, the horse-like gentlemen in Gulliver's Travels...And there were Brobdignagians.

Golly. Genius can posit almost anything and, through negative capability, we as readers accept it.

Anyway, thanks for re-familiarizing me with the word heuristic.

:)

sage said...

Interesting post, Charles. And what happens if we want to take the reader in another direction? For some reason, I was thinking of the story of Jonah in the Bible as I read this. Forget the whale stuff, the story is about compassion for an enemy, so the takes the stereotype of the enemy and the surprise at the end makes them re-think that stereotype.

Keith said...

Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, thanks for writing about "Heuristics" and it's connection to human behaviour and thinking. This is something new for me. How, rather when, do I realise I'm relying on them?

Deka Black said...

VERY interesting. Also, if well used, you can surprise the reader. Maybe the bird-like people are good at stealth (with owl -like features, of course)

Oscar said...

Thanks for the explanation of heuristics - interesting to say the least.

David J. West said...

Very interesting Charles. I wasn't aware of "Heuristicosity?" but I have like you tried to apply a resonances in language of what the reader may deduce for themselves-the only problem I think of so far is when a word carries meaning for me but perhaps a different meaning/resonance for the reader.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Fascinating. Humans always seem willing to excuse themselves and find fault with the "other." I think it is very easy to persuade them of almost anything.
The new studies on this generation's lack of empathy are pretty frightening.

Randy Johnson said...

Fascinating post. Never thought about that and I guess that's what you meant. Most of us are guilty of such in real life too I'd wager.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting! I guess we do make judgements based on the similarity of past knowledge. I have numerous races in my next book - I wonder how well I've conveyed their characteristics based on their appearances?

Travis Cody said...

Excellent essay.

Example...dwarf characters. Typically I think we're conditioned to see dwarves as short, stocky, gruff cavern dwellers who are strong warriors and who work in stone.

But in the Shannara series I'm currently reading, Terry Brooks writes the dwarf characters as forrest dwellers. They are still stout warriors who rely on the axe in close combat. But they are also proficient with bowes and with tracking.

I have a hard time relating to the dwarf characters as written by Brooks because of that heuristic bias you write about.

Cloudia said...

Heuristics = Being Human!


Great lesson, Doctor!



Aloha from Waikiki,
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Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Captivating post, my friend. It is indeed a natural trait to make many discriminating judgments based on prior visual knowledge. They may not always be right, but we do it anyway. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I didn't invent it. Humans are actually full of these kinds of things. It helps to be aware of them.

Sage, it may be useful to take the story against expectations and there's no reason you shouldn't, but it will take more effort and care.

Keith, thankee.

Prashant, humans use various types of heuristics almost invariably when calculating the probabilities of things. They often are successful at helping you make decisions but can certainly be wrong. I will post more about heuristics at some point.

Deka, I think a combination of going with reader expectations on some things and against on others can create a really interesting and dynamic story.

Oscar, glad you enjoyed.

David J., absolutely. Resonance can be a two edged sword at times, but I suppose that's true for all writing choices in a way. We gain some readers, perhaps lose others.

Patti, reliance on heuristics and a refusal to accept disconfirming information are prevalent in politics and often cause some really unfortunate thinking about candidates.

Randy, absolutely. We do it all the time. I will post some more about heuristics because the topic is pretty interesting.

Alex, most writers do it unconsciously because we carry the heuristics too. I didn't consciously construct most of the behavioral characteristics about my races.

Travis Cody, that's a very good example. Was Brooks right to try for the forest dwelling dwarfs? Well, there's no right or wrong perse, but he set himself up with a problem because it goes against expectations so strongly.

Cloudia, exactly! We all do it, and it's not right or wrong. it's part of who we are. But it is nice to become conscious of it.

Bernard, errors will be inevitable but the nature of human processing abilities kind of forces us into it. And we'll also be right sometimes.

Heather said...

Love this post! And I think stories that leave a lot for the reader to 'fill in' are stronger anyway. Less time spent on explaining and more time spent on developing story (ideally anyway!)

Charles Gramlich said...

Heather, that's true, let the reader do a lot of the work, and using heuristics to your advantage can help.

Liane Spicer said...

Fascinating post. I vaguely remembered the term 'heuristics' from LITS courses but didn't recall what it meant.

We can't escape them, I would imagine, since that's part of the way of interpreting the world based on past experience. I'm sure all writers use heuristics unconsciously; it'll be interesting to see what happens when we use them consciously.

Ron Scheer said...

If I understand what you're saying, we have an example of that in a real nasty congressional race in my district. The incumbent is smearing the challenger by digging up some old political activism that links him with two men with police records. Like goes with like.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, absolutely. I went through some of my stuff while working on this post and found all kinds of examples besides the few I gave. And 95 percent were unconscious on my part.

laughingwolf said...

helps to know psychological tricks to steer readers where you want em to go, charles ;)

good cops also use tricks to snare suspects, and make em admit to things they, consciously, would not

lotsa folks use 'sleight of hand' or 'mind', as the case may be, to further their own ends....

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, indeed, we are all manipulators at some level.

laughingwolf said...

i think 'nlp' is one way to catch folk?

The Golden Eagle said...

That's an interesting experiment. It must take a lot of skill on the part of the writer to go against established heuristics.

Greg said...

Great post! I learned a little bit about heuristics a long time ago, but never thought about applying it to writing. That's a great point you make.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, indeed.

Golden Eagle, it takes conscious thought for sure,

Greg, thanks, man. Glad you enjoyed.

Erik Donald France said...

Cool beans, man. We can certainly see some of this played out in political psychology, and religious. Good to know as a tool for writing, indeed.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, so true!

X. Dell said...

Interesting. I'm wondering how stereotypes play into the notion of representativeness heuristic.

jodi said...

Charles-and I learn something new everyday! I think our brains are sometimes conditioned to take the obvious and easy way out. Pre-concieved notions are part of the human element. I always look closely at an author's descriptions to better be able to understand the exact idea of where he is coming from with the writing of the character. P.S. Sorry this is so wordy!

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, I think stereotypes are pretty much an example of it.

Jodi, not a problem. Thanks for the thoughtful response!