How many times have you read a novel and been annoyed because one of the characters makes a stupid decision? You know it’s stupid. The author knows it’s stupid.
But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. She thinks it’s smart. She reasons it all out using horrible logic and comes to a stupid decision, because the author needed her to make a stupid decision so as to add some plot twist to the story.
What’s gone wrong is that the author got lazy. He knows that people make bad decisions all the time. He needs a bad decision to get his character in trouble.
And he lets the character use bad logic to reach that bad decision. He makes the character be stupid.
But that just makes the author look stupid.
It’s the wrong way to make the right thing happen.
Yes, you absolutely must throw your characters into danger. Over and over. Your characters must do stupid things.
But they’d better do them for the right reasons.
And yes, there can be a good solid reason for behaving irrationally.
I’ve just finished reading an amazing book on what makes people do stupid things. The title of the book is THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.
The author is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who never took a single course in economics, yet won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.
Kahneman has spent his long career studying why people do things. Why do they sometimes make irrational decisions? (The conventional wisdom among economists for many years was that people act in their own best interest. Kahneman and his collaborators showed that people often don’t.)
THINKING, FAST AND SLOW is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the past year. If you’re a novelist and you care about how people think, you need to read this book.
It’s a long book, but it’s not hard to read. Prepare to be astonished.
In this article I’ll give you a few (a very few) tidbits from the book.
Your Intuitive Brain
Let’s switch gears for a second. Here’s a simple math problem for you:
Suppose you’re at the store and you see a baseball bat bundled with a baseball. The price for the ball and bat together is $1.10. You ask the clerk how much the bat costs all by itself.
The clerk grins and says, “The bat costs exactly $1.00 more than the ball.”
Quick, how much does the ball cost?
Have you got the answer?
If you’re like most people, your mind’s first reaction, almost instantaneous, is to say that the ball costs 10 cents. That’s your intuition speaking.
And your intuition is wrong. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.
If you work this out with your rational side, it’s an algebra problem that takes a couple of seconds.
But your intuitive side instantly barrels in, suggesting the wrong answer much faster than your rational side can do the algebra. Unless your rational side intervenes and insists on checking the answer, you’ll get the problem wrong.
More than 80% of US college students get this problem wrong. Even at elite universities like Harvard, more than half get it wrong.
The human brain is a funny thing. Your intuition is incredibly fast, but it can lead you astray without you knowing it. And this, I think, is a useful thing for a novelist to know when he needs to get somebody in trouble.
Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, gives hundreds of examples of the strange foibles of the intuitive side of the brain.
Would you rather receive $3400 right now, or $3800 a month from now?
Most people would take the money now. Their intuitive side wants the money right away, even though it’s rationally better to wait.
Your Risk-Averse Brain
Would you bet $100 on a single fair coin toss if the payoff for winning was $110?
It’s a rational bet to make, but most people wouldn’t. Their intuitive side is terrified of risk. If they take the bet, they could possibly lose $100, and human intuition is designed to avoid losing. The typical payoff that makes a human’s intuitive side happy is $200. That’s enough to balance out the fear of losing $100.
Yes, the rational thing would be to take the bet if the expected win is positive. But your intuitive side doesn’t like it. The pain of losing is greater than the good feeling of winning.
This was one of the most surprising things I read in the book, because lots of people go to Las Vegas and gamble on bets that have a slightly negative expected payoff. Kahneman doesn’t discuss the psychology of this, but my best guess is that it’s related to the following fact.
The very strange thing is that people really like gambling when the payoff is huge, even if the odds are heavily against them.
Suppose you have a chance to win $100 million in the lottery. There are 200 million tickets, and each one costs $1. Would you buy one?
Most people would, even though the ticket costs twice the “fair” value. Why? Because the payoff is huge and the cost is low. Buying the ticket gives the possibility of radically changing your life. Your intuitive side loves possibilities.
Your intuitive side sees that you stand to gain $100 million and you stand to lose only $1. Your intuition doesn’t care a fig about the odds. The amount to gain is vastly bigger than the amount to lose. Decision made.
So why do people go to Vegas to gamble? Kahneman doesn’t say, but here’s what I’m guessing. Even though the odds of each particular bet are against you, it’s possible to have a long run of luck and let your money ride and come home with a big payday. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.
We’ve all heard stories of people who did it. So the trip as a whole has a possible big payoff, even though each individual bet is against you. And your intuitive side lovespossibilities.
In fact, your intuitive side is heavily swayed by the way possibilities are presented. Here’s an example:
- Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a 99% survival rate. You feel highly optimistic, and you’re eager to have the operation. Because the doc focused on survival.
- Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a1% death rate. Oh my god! You have a 1 in 100 chance of DYING right there on the table! No, no, no! You’re scared out of your wits. Because the doctor focused on death.
Notice that the surgeon is giving you the exact same information in both cases. A 99% survival rate means a 1% death rate.
Your rational side gets this, but your intuitive side doesn’t.
Yes, your rational side can talk your intuitive side off the ledge. But only if you give your rational side a fighting chance. If your rational side is out of practice or it’s been misinformed or it’s dulled by alcohol or it’s shouted down by your intuitive side or it’s smothered by lust, then you have all the ingredients you need for a bad decision.
Your Associative Brain
Your intuitive side is also very strong on making associations between words.
If you play a word game and happen to see the words “Florida” and “forgetful” and “bald” and “wrinkled”, then for a short time after you finish playing, you will walk more slowly than normal. You will act old, even though you didn’t actually see the word “old.” Your intuitive side does that free-association thing and it affects your body.
When you read a sentence that uses a lot of long words in it, you tend to disbelieve it more than if it were written using short words. Your intuition tells you that somebody is trying to snow you.
If you read a sentence that has an internal rhyme, such as “Woes unite foes,” you tend to believe it. Somehow the rhyme gives it credibility. And that’s bizarre. What do you think? Is it really true that “Woes unite enemies?” But that’s the same thing as “Woes unite foes.” Even though your rational side knows this, the rhyme still rings more true to your intuitive side.
Your intuitive side is eager to accept the easy answer. But here’s a strange thing. Remember that baseball bat problem? If you read that problem in a font that’s nearly illegible, your rational mind will have to work harder just to read the question. And you’ll be more likely to get the right answer. Just because the font is bad. Just because your rational side is more engaged in the problem.
Your intuitive side loves to jump to conclusions. Your rational side is perfectly able to check those conclusions, but it’s way slower than your intuitive side. Your intuitive side requires no effort at all. It’s always on, always tossing out answers. Your rational side takes time and effort to work. If you max it out, your intuitive side may just step in and solve a simpler problem. And you may not even notice.
This means that your intuitive side can quickly and easily leap to a wrong conclusion. Your rational side will have to work hard to check the conclusion, and it’ll take much longer. So a lot of times, your rational side just doesn’t bother to check.
Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. The reason you have intuition is because it’s often right, or close to right. Intuition is good. It’s just not perfect.
The Lesson For Novelists
When you need your character to make a bad decision, you can’t afford to let him use his rational side. You have to do an end-run around that.
You need to appeal to his intuition. You need to find a way to get his intuition to cheat him.
How do you do that? There are zillions of ways. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, and you’ll learn a few hundred ways.
And once you’ve absorbed a few hundred examples, your intuition will be trained and you’ll be able to easily invent a billion ways to defeat your characters’ intuition.
Yes, really. Your rational side can train your intuition to get other people’s intuition to do an end-run on their rational side.
If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visitwww.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.