Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For many authors, psychology is a godsend, lending them new insights into the workings of the human mind that take their work to the next level. Not only that, but many psychological theories and experiments make their way into the cultural landscape, shaping what readers expect from their stories and what’s considered realistic in fiction.
Because of this, it’s necessary for authors to have a basic understanding of the most popular psychological case studies and theories. These are the theories that readers are familiar with, in one form or another, and which help to shape the artistic space into which new writing is released.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at nine cases and theories that authors should know about – a Psychology 101 for lovers of literature. I’ll cover some of the concepts that have most shaped art, or that are most likely to be familiar to readers. Some may help you write more compelling characters, some may help you understand what readers want from your writing, and some will just bring you up to speed with pop culture’s understanding of how the brain works.
Be warned that the aim here is a useful understanding of popular psychology, and I’ll be simplifying certain details to convey the whole more effectively. While I won’t include anything that’s untrue, these are hotly debated, complex topics which benefit from further investigation.
Freud: The id, ego, and superego
Sigmund Freud made many contributions to the study of the human mind, but perhaps his most lasting is the concept of the id, ego, and superego. Freud imagined the psyche as a whole that emerges from the interaction of three aspects which develop at different points in our life:
Id – The primitive, instinctual, even animalistic part of our psyche.
Superego – The part of our psyche which internalizes and enforces society’s rules and values.
Ego – A logical part of our psyche which mediates between the other thirds and applies logic to meet their demands.
This model of the psyche describes psychological concepts, and isn’t intended to illustrate physical aspects of the brain. Consequently, it’s not something that can be truly proved or truly discredited, but rather a theoretical process by which our needs produce our behavior.
Though these three terms don’t exactly go out of their way to be easily understandable, they form one of the most influential theories in psychology, to the point that they’ve infiltrated our everyday vocabulary, and certainly literary thinking.
Many a character has been described as ‘a creature of pure id’, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we often shape the very core of a character by deciding the average interaction of their id, ego, and superego – whether they’re reckless, obsessed with other people’s opinions, living in the shadow of a relative, etc.
How can this help my writing?
At a basic level, Freud’s theory gives you a simple model for how characters make decisions, and even how to design who they are as people. Decide which element of their psyche holds most sway and you’ve got a behavioral model you can apply to their role in your story.
More than that, the id, ego, superego relationship also works on a larger scale, often with characters playing the roles of these processes. In This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters, I talked about the clichéd model of three heroes – a by-the-book hero, a roguish companion, and the scolding mentor or love interest who mediates their disagreements. This model might be clichéd and sexist, but it’s built on a recognizable foundation of productive conflict (and in that article, I take a look at bringing it up to date).Want a solid group dynamic? Transform elements of the psyche into characters.Click To Tweet
As with all the theories I’ll cover, it’s vital to understand that your readers might know this concept by name or they might have absorbed it from repeated depictions in pop culture. Readers might not know what these three elements are, but they recognize their interaction, and they’ll see a compelling realism in their depiction.
Pavlov and Skinner: Classical and operant conditioning
As with many of the case studies to follow, many of Ivan Pavlov’s and B. F. Skinner’s ideas will probably be vaguely familiar, and you’ve almost certainly heard of Pavlov’s famous dogs. Classical and operant conditioning are core concepts to behavioral psychology, and they’re easy to mix up.
The simple way to recognize the difference is that classical conditioning focuses on involuntary, automatic behaviour, and operant conditioning focuses on strengthening or weakening voluntary behaviour.
Classical conditioning was first described by Pavlov, who played the same tone over and over again, every time he fed his dogs. Eventually, Pavlov proved that the dogs could be induced to begin salivating just by the sound of the tone – something they’d previously done only as a response to the food being presented. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus – something that wouldn’t usually invite a response – can be paired with another stimulus such that it eventually invites the same automatic response, even on its own.
This technique is depicted in A Clockwork Orange, where the ‘Ludovico Technique’ involves injecting a young offender with nauseating drugs while showing him images of violence and sexuality, with the intent that he will eventually feel a nauseous aversion to his violent urges.
Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves adding a positive or negative stimulus after a behavior to encourage or discourage it. For example, if a dog does something its owner desires – like fetching a ball – the owner gives it a treat, gradually teaching that a desired behavior comes with a reward. Though this process helps with deliberate behavior, it can be effective on more than the conscious level, and is used by some people to quit smoking or even teach children (gold stars, for instance).
How can this help my writing?
Classical and operant conditioning raise many questions about free will and the power of being able to influence behavior. In A Clockwork Orange, the fictional variety of classical conditioning is used to alter someone’s behavior against their will, leaving them unable to defend themselves and engage with certain types of art.
Whether you know it or not, however, conditioning is also a part of your writing. You are, after all, inviting reactions from your reader and capable of rewarding or punishing them by creating a specific feeling. Train a reader to do something by making them feel smart – noticing a minor detail that is relevant soon after – and they’ll be more likely to keep doing it. With a little imagination, you can condition your reader to engage with your story in a certain way, maybe giving you the freedom to experiment, maybe giving you the opportunity to pull the rug out from under them, later.
Asch conformity experiments
Solomon Asch conducted a range of experiments on conformity with varied and interesting results. In brief, however, the experiments involved gathering a group of eight subjects and asking them to perform a simple task. On one card was a single line, and on another card were three others (A, B, and C), one of which was the same length as the original line.
One subject had been told that they were there to perform a simple test of their visual perception. The other seven, however, were actually working with Asch, and had been instructed to always answer unanimously, but to sometimes choose the wrong line of the three offered. The experiment was to observe whether, how often, and why the subject’s answer would be influenced by that of the other respondents.
It’s important to recognize that even under immense pressure, the majority of answers were still correct. Despite this, 32% of participants consistently went along with the clearly incorrect majority. Not only that, but 75% of participants wrongly conformed at least once.
Interviews after the experiment suggested that most of the prompted errors came about because correspondents were consciously going along with the group, rather than having their perception altered, but Asch did record some subjects who experienced ‘distortion of judgement’ – sufficient pressure to conform made them genuinely doubt their perception of reality, even with the evidence right in front of them.
How can this help my writing?
Asch’s experiments point to the idea that sufficient pressure can influence individuals to conform, even when they think the majority are wrong – in some cases, they’ll even accept that their perception is faulty.
In 1984, the statement ‘2 + 2 = 5’ refers to various ideas about control and psychological independence, with this theory of conformity among them. The book implies that control doesn’t come when the subject believes this obvious falsehood, but when they submit to the idea that it is functionally true without needing to be accurate, substituting their own judgment for a shifting, baseless, but approved ‘truth’.
“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
– George Orwell, 1984
Many writers have used conformity as a recipe for mass evil (and we’ll see more evidence of that later), and it’s often used to explain the foot soldiers and bureaucrats who support an evil empire. In fantasy, sci-fi, and war fiction, your villain doesn’t need masses of true believers – just people who feel pressured to substitute their own judgment for that of an external source.
Again, this theory isn’t just useful thematically. There are types of writing, or even just scenes, where certain characters become peers to the reader and can redefine their opinions by encouraging conformity. For example, if you want the reader to hate a character or judge them harshly, it can be effective to show a group of other characters badmouthing them prior to their appearance (as long as the group seems reasonable in doing so). So long as the reader doesn’t see a reason to distrust the group, they’re likely to adopt a little of their standards until prompted otherwise.The narrator (and even the characters) have the power to sway how the reader thinks.Click To Tweet
This can be used honestly or dishonestly – sometimes you want to trick the reader, and sometimes you just want to orient them to your world. In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the character of Slim is presented in glowing terms, establishing him as someone whose opinion can be trusted.
He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner.
– John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
From this point on, Slim’s opinion of other characters is used to guide both the protagonists’ and the readers’ perception of who they are and how they should be perceived. Slim isn’t just about conformity; he’s also given a degree of authority, which I’ll touch on later.
Finally, consider the ways conformity can help your marketing – if you can create the impression that a majority of people recommend your work, you’ll be more likely to net individual readers. A great blurb and influencer marketing can help with this.
Loftus and Palmer: Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction
Elizabeth Loftus has done a lot of work on how language can affect, even warp, memory, but probably her most famous experiment was specifically about investigating how new information could change an eyewitness’ account of an event.
In this experiment, a group of test subjects were asked to watch several short films depicting traffic collisions. They were then asked questions as if they were eyewitnesses, including the question ‘About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?’, with various verbs being used with different subjects.
Loftus found evidence that their answers were affected by the verb used – specifically, that more dramatic verbs resulted in a higher mean estimate of speed:
Smashed: 40.8 mph
Collided: 39.3 mph
Bumped: 38.1 mph
Hit: 34.0 mph
Contacted: 31.8 mph
Loftus stepped this up in a subsequent experiment, in which she used a similar process in relation to whether the subjects had seen broken glass in the film. Those confronted with more dramatic verbs reported seeing glass in reliably higher numbers, even though there had been no glass in the film.
How can this help my writing?
Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction shows a major fault in eyewitness testimony that many argue still hasn’t been addressed to this day. It’s an incredibly strong argument that people don’t need much prompting to invent, and then totally accept, details that they didn’t actually witness. Not only that, but it’s an argument that many readers are already half-aware of, making the boundaries for what a character can sincerely but incorrectly believe much wider than you might think.
This logic alone is enough to get authors thinking about the possibilities for a murder mystery, crime story, or Rashomon scene, but its usefulness actually goes deeper. What this experiment proves beyond a doubt is the incredible effect that the right words can have on their perception of a situation – that there really is a difference between saying a character is ‘very tired’ and saying they’re ‘exhausted’.The right choice of words changes how a moment is perceived and remembered.Click To Tweet
In How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words, I talked about why ‘very’ – and even adverbs in general – are no match for a well-chosen verb, and this is the proof. If the right choice of words can alter memory itself, imagine what it can for your reader’s appreciation of a moment or character.
Rosenhan: On Being Sane in Insane Places
Rosenhan’s famous experiment was a heck of a stunt, but it was one that pretty undeniably proved its point. Critical of the diagnostic techniques used in the psychiatry of his day, Rosenhan gathered three women and four other men, all of whom would present basic, apparently harmless symptoms to test whether they would be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. If admitted, they were asked to get themselves released without admitting to the experiment. Author Jon Ronson reports the results in The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry:
At an agreed time, each told the duty psychiatrist that they were hearing a voice in their head that said the words ‘Empty’, ‘Hollow’ and ‘Thud’. That was the only lie they would be allowed to tell. Otherwise they had to behave completely normally.
All eight were immediately diagnosed as insane and admitted into the hospitals. Seven were told they had schizophrenia, one manic depression… [The experimenters were held for] an average of nineteen days each, even though they all acted completely normally from the moment they were admitted.
… [Once the results were reported,] one mental hospital challenged Rosenhan to send some more fakes, guaranteeing they’d spot them this time. Rosenhan agreed, and after a month the hospital proudly announced they had discovered forty-one fakes. Rosenhan then revealed he’d sent no-one to the hospital.
The results were seismic, all but proving issues with psychiatric diagnosis, and specifically the difficulty of ‘proving’ sanity in a situation where insanity is assumed. The experimenters claimed the only way to be released was not to prove their sanity, but to agree to their insanity and falsify recovery.
How can this help my writing?
One of the clearest lessons here is how easy it is to be overly, even dangerously, dramatic when discussing mental health, something I addressed in What To Consider When Writing Mental Illness.
Even outside its psychiatric implications, Rosenhan’s experiment shows just how much prior assumptions and biases can steer our perception of events. For authors, this charts a path to writing truly revelatory twists in their stories, and how easy it is to mislead the reader – lead them to a conclusion, set it in their mind, and you’ll be free to drop some pretty obvious clues to the contrary without being found out. In How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain, I talked about giving them an innocent character to suspect instead, and this is the logic that makes it work.Turn bias to your favor and you can shape the reader’s experience.Click To Tweet
Again, as a psychological observation, it’s also something you can apply to your characterization. If someone is set in their ways, if they see the world a certain way, they’ll often twist the evidence in front of them to fit their assumptions and even struggle to operate without them. It’s the tragic flaw of Inspector Javert from Les Misérables, unable and unwilling to see a fundamentally decent man as anything but a criminal.
In You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It, I discussed how you can add flaws to fictional organizations to make them seem more realistic. Consider Rosenhan’s experiment when you begin this process – what ‘inherent truths’ would be likely to form in your chosen organization, and how could they cause problems with how they do their jobs?
Finally, be aware of how this kind of bias can affect your own writing and editing. There are errors you’re primed to make and then miss, which is what makes beta readers, editors, and staying objective so important.
Ready for Part 2? If so, be prepared for things to get dark. Sure, we know how to make our characters misremember reality, but can we really turn normal, believable men and women into murderers? Find out, here.
And, for more great advice on the psychology of a character, check out How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises and Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip.