Psychology 101: Knowledge That Will Improve Your Writing – Part 2

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This is Part 2 of this article – Part 1 can be found here.

In Part 1 of this article, we explored how psychological experiments and theories of the past can help you influence your characters to misremember and misunderstand reality, and how sophisticated techniques give you more power over your readers than you might think.

In this second installment, we’re getting darker, exploring the psychological theorizing behind terrible acts, and what they mean for your writing.

Kitty Genovese and diffusion of responsibility

Kitty Genovese was not a psychologist, but the victim of a terrible murder that grabbed the headlines of 1964. Newspapers reported that although the attack had been sustained, as many as thirty-eight people who witnessed the attack in some way took no action, not even calling the police.

Since then, that account has come under intense scrutiny, with claims that the police were called, individuals did rush to Kitty’s aid once the attacker had fled, and that there were far fewer witnesses than reported. Nevertheless, at the time, the version of events depicted above prompted intense questioning about ‘Genovese syndrome’, and why such a large group of people had failed to act.

One of the most popular theories that arose out of this was that of diffusion of responsibility – the idea that, in large groups, each individual feels less personally responsible. Piliavin et al set out to investigate this, and several other, theories under non-laboratory conditions, intending to investigate a variety of factors, such as frequency and speed of help provided, how the nature of the victim affected the provision of aid, and how race affected these factors. Piliavin’s most famous experiment involved a student collapsing in a train car while others observed the reactions of the passengers from another car.

The most important finding, certainly at the time, was that diffusion of responsibility didn’t seem to be present. Helping behavior was incredibly high, especially when the experimenter seemed to be ill rather than drunk – 62 out of 65 ill ‘victims’ were spontaneously helped, while 19 of 38 drunk ‘victims’ received the same treatment. Race didn’t play a significant factor in the provision of help, and more passengers didn’t result in less or slower help, which the theory of diffusion of responsibility would predict.

Piliavin concluded that the provision of help was based on a cost vs. reward basis, where the discomfort of not helping was weighed against the potential danger of providing aid (along with many other factors).

How can this help my writing?

There are a lot of lessons to learn from the Kitty Genovese case and what followed. First among them is how easy it is to sell a pessimistic untruth – for whatever reason, we’re quick to believe the worst of each other. A lot of stories trade on this impulse even as they reinforce it; that might inspire you to assume a little better of the average character, or it might just be a good indication of what sells.

In Watchmen, the protagonist Rorschach is partially driven by a personal connection to Kitty Genovese, adopting moral authority over a world which he sees as fatally permissive. Despite this seemingly admirable proactivity, he’s a dark character with questionable moral guidelines; a man who lacks faith in humanity and therefore lacks some of that humanity in his actions.

Beyond this, Piliavin’s experiments suggest a great deal about how humans work that you can apply to your characters, their motivations, and their actions. This has wider application than you might think – after all, what does it take for a disparate group to set out after a dragon together?

Harlow’s monkeys

Harry F. Harlow was interested in the psychology of attachment, and he wasn’t afraid to torture some monkeys to get to the bottom of it. In his most famous experiment, Harlow separated eight monkeys from their mothers at birth and placed them in cages with two ‘surrogate mothers’. One of these mothers was covered in cloth, while the other was made of wire.

In Harlow’s experiment, which lasted for 165 days, four of the monkeys got milk from the wire mother, while four could receive milk from the cloth mother. Harlow observed that even when the wire mother provided milk, the monkeys would choose to spend the majority of their time with the cloth mother and would retreat to her when deliberately frightened. Harlow also discovered that maternal deprivation caused permanent emotional damage after approximately ninety days – monkeys that were re-socialized before ninety days had passed could be ‘rehabilitated’.

Harlow claimed his experiment disproved theories that maternal attachment is a result of the caregiver’s ability to provide food, suggesting instead an evolutionary theory that prioritizes the caregiver’s ability to provide response and security.

How can this help my writing?

Attachment theory is a complex business, but Harlow’s experiments are often held up as an example of how important the need for emotional contact is in comparison with even the basics of survival.

Your characters’ emotional needs shouldn’t be a secondary concern.Click To Tweet

Though this conclusion is arguable, it’s worth considering in relation to your characters’ emotional needs and their goals. The affection and loyalty your characters feel towards each other can be powerful motivators on a par with their very survival. It’s the sort of thing they should think about often; a key ingredient in their decision making and the last humanizing factor for even the vilest characters. When Lady Macbeth tries to murder King Duncan, fulfilling her greatest ambitions, she’s thwarted only by the fact that he looks so much like her father. Make sure your characters’ emotions and attachments aren’t an afterthought in your writing, because they wouldn’t be in real life.

This might sound like a burden, but emotions are actually a plot’s best friend – there’s no better or quicker way to have a character make a stupid but believable mistake, just so long as you set up their emotional needs in advance.

The same is true of your readers – they seldom want to be manipulated but, as we’ve said before, Pathos Is Not A Dirty Word, And It Belongs In A Writer’s Vocabulary.

Also, if ‘wire mother’ doesn’t tickle the part of your imagination that thinks up serial killers, crime writing probably isn’t your thing.

Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment

In one of the most famous psychological experiments ever carried out, Zimbardo aimed to investigate whether the reported brutality of guards in American prisons was due to individual sadism or a result of the environment in which employees were placed.

To this end, Zimbardo paid twenty-four students to take part in his experiment, which involved creating a mock prison and randomly assigning them the role of guard or prisoner. Pains were taken to make the arrest and imprisonment process as realistic as possible – uniforms were issued to both groups, and prisoners were stripped, deloused, and issued ID numbers.

Almost immediately, the guards began harassing prisoners, a practice that became abuse as the experiment went on. Prisoners also fell into their roles, altering how they interacted with each other and regarding the rules as valid, even sacrosanct, rather than the extension of an experiment.

The experiment quickly devolved into what was perceived as a genuine riot. When parents visited, the guards made independent efforts to clean the prisoners and mask the true conditions of the prison. Multiple prisoners were excused from the experiment for their own wellbeing, and Zimbardo canceled the experiment after six days, rather than the fortnight it was intended to run. He’d later say:

It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point – that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.

From his experiment, Zimbardo concluded that humans will readily conform to social roles, defining their behavior by pre-existing expectations rather than the evidence in front of them. Despite this, the experiment has received a great deal of criticism since, with many arguing that it was actually the harmless nature of the study, and the student’s professional and financial relationship with Zimbardo, that allowed things to apparently devolve.

Many guards claimed they were just ‘acting’, and that Zimbardo’s own instructions had dictated the path of their behavior, though this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. The students engaged in a lot of behavior which seems sincere – for example, 90% of prisoner conversations related to prison life, with only 10% about ‘real’ life, and guards worked overtime for no extra pay.

How can this help my writing?

Zimbardo’s experiment seems to suggest that the expectations of a role have a huge shaping influence on the individual that fills it. If you’re looking to alter a character’s worldview or behavior, there aren’t many easier or more convincing routes.

But Zimbardo’s experiment is also flawed, drawing no clear distinction between truly adopting a role and merely ‘playing’ it. This can be taken as a lesson in itself as, to those prisoners who suffered through the guards’ predations, the distinction was often superfluous. Whatever your character pretends to be, this logic suggests that part of that pretense is an unavoidable truth, suggesting a layer of characterization that often goes overlooked.

Keep in mind how the roles your characters play will shape their behaviour.Click To Tweet

It might even be possible that the character merely ‘playing a role’ is the most dangerous. In Ender’s Game, the protagonist is told that he is taking part in simulated battles for purposes of education. In reality, he’s actually being used to fight real battles, and acting with far more ruthlessness than if he knew the truth. It’s an extreme example, but there are lots of ways to make a character feel like their actions don’t really ‘count’ in their moral reality.

Again, this is something that applies to readers – give them a role in the story and they’re likely to embrace it. Is it their job to figure out the murder? Let them know early on and you can influence how they approach your work.

Milgram: Obedience to Authority

Milgram began his famous experiment to test a hypothesis often called ‘the Germans are different’. This hypothesis sprang up in response to atrocities committed by the Nazis, with some psychologists arguing that these were possible because Germans were possessed of a ‘character defect’ which made them more obedient to authority.

Milgram recruited for an experiment apparently about ‘learning’, paying participants simply for turning up. Once they did, they were introduced to a confederate of Milgram’s as if they were another subject, and the two drew straws to determine their roles (the draw was fixed so that the subject was always the ‘teacher’ to the confederate’s ‘student’).

The ‘student’ was then strapped to a chair and had electrodes attached to their bodies. The subject ‘tested’ them on a series of word pairs they were supposedly supposed to have memorized. The subject was accompanied by an experimenter in a white coat, who would ask them to administer a small shock to the ‘student’ every time they gave a wrong answer, with the shock increasing on each wrong answer. There were thirty levels of shock, with the highest being 450 volts. In some versions of the experiment, the ‘student’ would mention they had a heart condition prior to starting.

Once the experiment began, the ‘student’ confederate would give frequent wrong answers, and the white-coated experimenter would keep asking the subject to shock them. They did this using four standardized prompts, and the instruction to move onto the next when one was ignored:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you to continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice but to continue.

The experimenter was allowed to respond to direct queries about safety with the phrase, ‘Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.’ In various versions of this experiment, the ‘student’ apparently reacted with noises of pain to the process, and even banged on the separating wall to complain about their heart condition, eventually lapsing into silence that could be perceived as severe injury or even death.

Despite this, 65% of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts, and all the participants continued to at least 300 volts. This was contrary to informal predictions prior to the experiment, which concluded that very few people would shock at the highest levels.

Milgram concluded that ‘the Germans are different’ was a disproven hypothesis, and that the average person could be directed to commit horrific acts if in the right conditions and under the aegis of an accepted figure of authority.

How can this help my writing?

This study, like others on the list, touches on the mundanity and ease of evil acts – the simplicity with which good, or at least ‘normal’, people can be driven to accept and even carry out harmful acts against others without reasonable justification.

Again, it should tell you something about the antagonists in your world and how they view their own actions. In the Star Wars prequels, for example, the writers were faced with a difficult problem – how to transform an innocent child into a baddy as heinous as Darth Vader. While their efforts are generally seen as flawed, they were right to have Anakin corrupted by the machinations of a powerful authority figure. Given time and the right justification from authority, most transformations can feel realistic.

Given the right circumstances, any character transformation is possible.Click To Tweet

Of course, in writing, you are your reader’s authority figure. Your writing, the things you choose to say and how you choose to say them, are a major factor in configuring your reader’s moral perception. If you tell them not to worry about all the henchmen your protagonist is mowing down, they won’t give them a second thought. You can use this to set up a rip-roaring adventure, or to blindside them later when you reveal that, actually, they’ve been celebrating the deaths of real people.

In Robert Rankin’s Snuff Fiction, the narrator tells the story of a close friend who, in an early anecdote, is responsible for his dog’s death. The narrator more or less brushes off the incident as one of many crazy adventures, but near the end of the story, the reader learns that he actually harbors a venomous grudge, and had hidden his anger because his words have been visible to other characters. As the story’s authority, the narrator instructs the reader to laugh off a traumatic incident, only revealing its true import later, at which point the reader ‘comes to their senses’, and is able to see the profound effect the event had and, crucially, how their previous perception was unreasonable.

Psychology in action

No individual psychological experiment or theory contains the whole truth about the human experience. Those mentioned above are the experiments most fully embraced by pop culture – sometimes it’s because they revealed an important truth, sometimes it’s because they excited the imagination, and sometimes it’s both.

As ever, true enlightenment comes from further reading, and I’d suggest that if you’ve had your interest piqued by any of the above, you read about them further, as there’s a lot more information available on both practice and results. You can also check out the below studies, which all have something to offer the informed author, and I’m sure that the comments will include suggestions for additional informative studies:

  • Gardner and Gardner: Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee
  • Bandura: Bobo Doll Experiment
  • Mischel: Stanford Marshmallow Experiment
  • Skinner: Superstition in the Pigeon
  • Johnson: Monster Study
  • Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise
  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect
  • The Hawthorne Effect

While the list above isn’t exhaustive, and can’t be, it should be enough to clue you in on some of psychology’s most interesting experiments and their findings. These are the theories many readers have already studied, and they dictate a lot about the world into which you’re releasing your art.

Knowing some simple psychology increases authors’ understanding of characters and readers.Click To Tweet

Consider them through your own lens, interrogate them using your worldview, and apply the result to your characters and world. Not only will you be adding another level to your craft, but you’ll be depicting a more realistic, resonant world in your writing.

What cases and theories do you think belong on this list? Let me know in the comments below! Or, for more great advice on the psychology of a character, check out What To Consider When Writing Mental IllnessHow To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises and Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip.


5 thoughts on “Psychology 101: Knowledge That Will Improve Your Writing – Part 2”

  1. Great article but do you think there is a problem with people not knowing the psychology theories? For instance Milgram, and a lot of experts he consulted with, never expected such a high level of compliance. We all know of his research and we still question why the nazis acted as they did and most people seem to believe they would be different I’ve studied psychology and my WIP deals with compliance and conformity and I think many readers will expect more opposition to evil. I guess I’m not sure whether I should indulge the readers and provide more obvious authority figures or stick to the reality that people are readily confused by good and evil with the right narrative.

    1. Milgram’s study would be more helpful to an author who had a character suffering from guilt and coming to terms with his/her own behaviour. It would be a reflection from an internal viewpoint in which the character has to explain to his/herself, their own lack of initiative. Other people are not going to understand either. Both freeze responses and over co-operation leave a person confused but also challenged not to repeat the same mistake. The experimental subjects typically were very stressed by the situation. They did not enjoy inflicting pain or want to kill someone. It was a relief to be debriefed. “I was just following orders,” was a common excuse given for wartime behaviour. Milgram did show that the motive need not be sadism.
      It would ruin the creative writing to have co-operation instead of challenge if it weakened the story. Yes, the reader would be dissatisfied.

      1. Hi Kale,

        Great question, and yes, I do think there’s a potential problem there. Real life is stranger (or at least more complicated) than fiction, and there’s often a gap between the way the world is and what the reader finds believable.

        Author Jo Walton coined ‘The Tiffany Problem’ – the idea that even though Tiffany was a real Medieval name, most readers would think it was a joke if you used it in historical fiction; a problem caused by the gap between fact and the reader’s assumptions.

        Part of deciding what to include in your writing is assessing your reader’s assumptions and then deciding which to challenge and how to do so. Approaches could range from a foreword in which you share the relevant facts (the least compelling but easiest option), through having your characters do this in-story, to just focusing all your powers on making events feel as realistic as possible. This is a really interesting problem, and something we’ll return to with a dedicated article.

        Rosamund, you touch on the idea of readers not recognizing behavior they would not indulge in (or at least which they haven’t yet), which is another aspect of the same problem. This is compounded by the need to regard self-reported behavior and motivations with healthy skepticism – while Milgram’s experiment did indeed challenge the idea that cruelty emerges from pure sadism, we also can’t trust sadists to self-report, or even for people to accurately recognize or explain their own motives. Yet another challenge for writers who want to draw on real-life events!


  2. Should my historical novel contain dates in every chapter? Should I use any other words apart from ‘said’ and ‘asked’ in dialogue tags? I have used both ‘said he’ and ‘ he said’ in dialogue tags. Is that fine?

    1. Hi Sreyoshi,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m happy to answer your questions, but in future you might find it useful to comment on articles like those below, which deal with more closely related topics. That way, other commenters can lend their advice, and will be able to learn from the discussion.


      Whether and how you include dates depends on the type of book you’re trying to write. If you’re hopping around in time, it’s probably advisable, but if you can get away with sharing the date naturally in your writing, that’s generally preferable, since it puts less distance between reader and story (unless, of course, you want distance).

      Some writers say you should never use anything other than ‘said’ or ‘asked’, but it’s often useful to use rarer verbs to convey intent or other extra information. Using ‘said he’ sounds archaic, so I’d avoid it, but in general using both ‘said Fred’ and ‘Fred said’ is fine.


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