Making Use Of Cognitive Biases In Storytelling

Cognitive biases are at play when an audience interprets any work of art. Storytellers can make use of them, and regularly do.

There’s an interesting list of cognitive biases at Wikipedia. As I skimmed through the list, I noticed how a lot of the biases are utilised to useful effect by writers.

ANCHORING OR FOCALISM

The tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor”, on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information acquired on that subject).

This is related to the writerly observation that ‘readers are like ducklings’, meaning audiences typically fall in love with the first character they meet. (In its original Greek definition the ‘protagonist’ means the character who sets off the action ie. the first character we meet.)

We can’t help identifying with the protagonist. It’s coded in our movie-going DNA.

Roger Ebert
Harry Rountree (1878-1950) birds
Harry Rountree (1878-1950)

Ergo, when creating empathy, especially for an otherwise unlikeable character, storytellers do well when introducing this character to the audience first. Let the audience spend time with them. This alone will help you out. (And here’s a list of other tricks writers utilise to create audience empathy.)

When storytellers make use of a Save The Cat moment, we are working with anchoring bias.

ANTHROPOCENTRIC THINKING

The tendency to use human analogies as a basis for reasoning about other, less familiar, biological phenomena.

Heavily utilised in stories for very young readers. Explains the large number of talking animals in picture books.

See also: the difference between anthropomorphism and personification.

AVAILABILITY HEURISTIC

The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be.

This affects how storytellers keep a plot thread front-of-mind in the audience by weaving scenes together.

AVAILABILITY CASCADE

Repeat something enough and it will seem true.

If audience brains didn’t work like this, storytellers would find it impossible to create verisimilitude when conjuring a setting for them.

Unfortunately for the real world, this is also how dictators operate. Autocratic dictators understand that power is all. Truth means nothing. They will keep saying whatever suits themselves over and over.

(And here’s how to survive if you live in an autocracy:)

Under an autocracy, there is one rule of survival: remain honest. Autocracy is not frightening in that it prohibits and intimidates; autocracy is frightening in that it uncovers in man the darkes, the most cynical and low. Autocracy teaches man to lie even to himself. And so, in order not to accept autocracy and play by its rules, you need to be yourself and remain honest — primarily with yourself. And continue to do your job, as long as it is possible. In other words, do what you must, come what may.

Tikhon Dzyadko, journalist at RTVi

AUTHORITY BIAS

The tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion.

Unseen narrators are considered authoritative, and the more omniscient their viewpoint, the more authority they are assumed to wield. Writers making use of unseen narrators need to know this, because if they intend an audience to engage their critical faculties in regards to their narrators’ judgements on a situation, that may not happen. In effect, a sexist, racist unseen narrator with omniscience will be encouraging sexist, racist views in much of the audience.

Also: The Cross-Race Effect describes the tendency for people of one race to have difficulty identifying members of a race other than their own.

BIZARRENESS EFFECT

Bizarre material is better remembered than common material.

This accounts for why writers include a few unexpected details in their stories e.g. a finger which shoots milk out of it in “The Electric Grandmother“.

See also: von Restorff effect

CHEERLEADER EFFECT

The tendency for people to appear more attractive in a group than in isolation.

Greg Heffley wouldn’t seem so friendly if he didn’t have a cadre of good friends.

CHOICE SUPPORTIVE BIAS

Choice-supportive bias or post-purchase rationalization is the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has selected and/or to demote the forgone options. It is part of cognitive science, and is a distinct cognitive bias that occurs once a decision is made.

Famously, the classic American poem “The Road Not Traveled” by Robert Frost is about what we now call choice-supportive bias. But modern audiences, influenced by modern context, rarely interpret it this way on first reading.

EGO-CENTRIC BIAS

Egocentric bias is the tendency to rely too heavily on one’s own perspective and/or have a higher opinion of oneself than reality.

Generally, this one is so annoying. Look at any comment thread and find people offering their own personal experiences to contradict an observation which is nonetheless true for a group. (“My wife earns more than me, a man, therefore the gender pay gap is a fabrication.”)

There’s a fascinating podcast about ego-centric bias at Hidden Brain. Show notes are as follows:

Psychologists say we are often consumed with our own perspective, and fail to see the signs that others are uncomfortable, anxious or afraid. Vanessa Bohns, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University, says researchers refer to this phenomenon as an “egocentric bias.” This bias may reveal itself when we put others on the spot, like when we ask a co-worker out on a date or solicit a stranger for money. It causes us to vastly underestimate the pressures we place on those around us, and it can have all sorts of serious consequences.

When it comes to storytelling, writers set up narratives so that audiences identify with some characters more than others. Sometimes these characters act morally (“heroes”), sometimes they don’t (“antiheroes”). The best storytellers are able to manipulate audiences into siding with morally reprehensible characters, and then follow them along on their dark journeys.

Ego-centric bias is interesting because it will affect which characters (fictional or otherwise) an audience is likely to side with. As explained in the podcast, we are far more likely to think of how we are affected than how we affect others. Therefore, we don’t tend to empathise so easily with those in positions of power.

This explains why one of the main tricks of storytellers is to put their sympathetic main character in a humiliating position. Due to ego-centric bias, an audience will side with the humiliated person rather than with the person causing the humiliation.

That’s why in the pilot episode of The Sopranos there’s a scene in which Tony visits his mother, who undermines his ability to do his job. She thinks the older men of the family know what they’re doing. She still sees Tony as a little boy. Likewise in the Breaking Bad pilot, Walt’s manhood (as a poorly paid, ‘safe’ high school chemistry teacher) is undermined by Hank (a big, tough drug busting policeman).

FALSE UNIQUENESS BIAS

The tendency of people to see their projects and themselves as more singular than they actually are.

Assuming audiences identity with a main character to the point where the main character equals themselves, false uniqueness bias is useful to storytellers because storytellers can get away with utilising archetypes. Give an archetype a few distinguishing features (even if superficial) and audiences, in large part, don’t seem to mind. They will still perceive this fictional archetype as a unique, individuated character in the world.

GESTALT THEORY

Our brains rearrange things so that they make sense.

Just as well, really, since storytellers are doing their best (and always falling short) of creating a world which seems real.

According to this theory, human eyes see objects in their entirety rather than perceiving individual parts. This explains why, in any work of art, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Aristotle.)

HALO EFFECT

The tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one personality area to another in others’ perceptions of them.

Applies especially to good-looking actors, or to characters described on the page as good looking.

HOSTILE ATTRIBUTION BIAS

The “hostile attribution bias” is the tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.

Once a storyteller has successfully set up an in-group and an out-group, anything done by the out-group (the opponent) will be interpreted as evil. Is Gargamel making a potion? Well, he must be trying to murder the Smurfs, right? This can be subverted to comic effect. He may just be making his dinner.

HUMOUR EFFECT

Humorous items are more easily remembered than non-humorous ones, which might be explained by the distinctiveness of humor, the increased cognitive processing time to understand the humor, or the emotional arousal caused by the humor.

Some writers, like Kevin Barry, say that a story isn’t worth a dime unless it includes humour, no matter the genre.

ILLUSION OF TRANSPARENCY

The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others, and to overestimate how well they understand others’ personal mental states.

This cognitive bias is useful to storytellers because characters need offer only a few choice details and audiences will fill in the rest of a fictional character’s mental state.

INTENTIONALITY BIAS

Tendency to judge human action to be intentional rather than accidental.

Since drive is so important to creating active rather than passive characters, this one is useful. This can be subverted for comedy. Mr Magoo’s actions are all entirely accidental. (Because he can’t see what’s right in front of him.)

(SELF-) GENERATION EFFECT

Self-generated information is remembered best. For instance, people are better able to recall memories of statements that they have generated than similar statements generated by others.

When crafting stories, ask the audience to do some of the work. If the self-generation effect applies to stories, audiences will be more engaged with (have a better memory for) the information they have deduced rather than for the information they have had described for them.

JUST-WORLD HYPOTHESIS

The tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just, causing them to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable injustice as deserved by the victim(s).

Writers need to understand this one because it will affect how audiences are likely to interpret an ending, especially if we’re conveying the message that the world is not just at all. Writers of lyrical short stories often like to subvert this one.

Children’s stories, in contrast, tend to run with it. Immoral actions tend to attract punishment, although the nature of this ‘punishment’ has evolved over the years.

LAG EFFECT

The phenomenon whereby learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to studying the same amount of time in a single session. (Also called spacing effect.)

This is why storytellers must avoid infodumps. Drip feed essential information, and make it as interesting and integrated as possible.

LIST-LENGTH EFFECT

A smaller percentage of items are remembered in a longer list, but as the length of the list increases, the absolute number of items remembered increases as well. 

Even the Evanegelist of Linguistic Economy E.B. White loved his lists. See Charlotte’s Web for numerous examples. When a writer describes everything that comes out of a picnic basket, they aren’t expecting the audience to remember every item; they are creating a general setting.

Also relevant:

Memory recall is higher for the last items of a list when the list items were received via speech than when they were received through writing. If you’re writing something for the stage/screen or for audiobook adaptation, bear this one in mind.

Items near the end of a sequence are the easiest to recall, followed by the items at the beginning of a sequence; items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.

MERE EXPOSURE EFFECT

The tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them.

This explains why series are so popular, for children and for adults. We get to know a character, a setting. On topo of the mere exposure effect, the audience doesn’t have to expend any mental effort getting to know these aspects in the next, novel story.

Even within a single story, we will like a character we see much of. This is why we like Tony Soprano and Dexter. I don’t just mean we like to watch them. We kind of like them too, right? We get to understand them, even if we don’t agree with their moral decisions.

Exposure effect works with real life friendships, too. Researchers have found that when making friendships, frequently of contact is critical, even more critical than shared interests and values. Simply by seeing a lot of people we tend to become friends. (Also enemies. Related writing advice: Keep opponents in close proximity to each other.)

MISINFORMATION EFFECT

Memory becoming less accurate because of interference from post-event information.

Of special significance to mystery writers. This cognitive bias helps audiences forget the unuseful red herrings once they’re no longer needed.

OUTGROUP HOMOGENEITY BIAS

Individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups.

This is one for storytellers to be aware of in themselves when creating a diverse cast of characters.

PEAK-END RULE

People seem to perceive not the sum of an experience but the average of how it was at its peak (e.g., pleasant or unpleasant) and how it ended.

This explains why storytellers are so mindful about where to end stories, scenes, paragraphs and sentences. Endings carry extra weight.

PICTURE SUPERIORITY EFFECT

Concepts that are learned by viewing pictures are more easily and frequently recalled than are concepts that are learned by viewing their written word form counterparts.

This explains the generalised to ‘show and not tell’ but there is definitely a place for telling. (To achieve the desired pacing.) Also, the storyteller may want a reader/audience member to gloss over a particular detail, meaning that detail to influence them subconsciously, or during the phase of delayed decoding.

PURITANICAL BIAS

Refers to the tendency to attribute cause of an undesirable outcome or wrongdoing by an individual to a moral deficiency or lack of self-control rather than taking into account the impact of broader societal determinants.

If storytellers want the audience to avoid applying their puritanical bias to characters, go out of your way to show how an empathetic character’s circumstances have been shaped by factors outside their own control. Again, the creators of Breaking Bad did a magnificent job of this when creating empathy for Walter White.

SHARED INFORMATION BIAS

Known as the tendency for group members to spend more time and energy discussing information that all members are already familiar with (i.e., shared information), and less time and energy discussing information that only some members are aware of (i.e., unshared information).

This is something for storytellers to be aware of in themselves. Apply it during the editing process. Are you accidentally telling your audience what they already know? Are you missing opportunities to really drill down into the characters’ psychology and offer what they don’t already know?

SEQUENTIAL CAUSALITY

Sequential causality is generally considered to be very important in plotting. It is often thought to be the difference between a simple story, which just presents events as arranged in their time sequence, and a true plot, in which one scene prepares for and leads into and causes the scene that comes after it.

Rust Hills

This is especially important to film editors, and this bias undergirds the Kuleshov effect. That said, contemporary novels are ‘cut’ like film, because readers are highly film literate. A scene therefore needs little to no segue; readers will assum sequential causality. Storytellers need to be conscious of this phenomenon in case they accidentally create sequential causality.

See also: Apophenia – The endency to perceive connections between unrelated things.

TRAVIS SYNDROME

Overestimating the significance of the present.

When inserting backstory or side-shadowing (or similar) into a story, the audience is going to want you to take them back to the ‘present’, whatever that means for your story world.

VERBATIM EFFECT

The “gist” of what someone has said is better remembered than the verbatim wording.

If, in a story, a character is recalling a conversation, they won’t be able to recall it word for word. Some writers, such as Alice Munro, are very good at conveying how memory erodes over time and affects the present. When an Alice Munro character recalls a conversation from the distant past, Munro doesn’t try to persuade the audience that this conversation has been remembered word-for-word. The stories therefore achieve realism.

(Alice Munro is also great at conveying Chronostasis in her characters – Distortion in the perception of time.)

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