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Why smart characters make dumb mistakes


There are times in our novels when we need our characters to make mistakes. After all, they’re only human. There are lots of good reasons for letting our characters screw up. Characters who are perfect are boring to read. Mistakes tend to make a character’s situation worse, which heightens the drama and tension in your story. A sudden mistake can make readers gasp in alarm, while a mistake the reader sees coming but the character doesn’t can make readers laugh or cringe.

The question is, how can you get away with your otherwise smart characters doing dumb things? For our protagonists and antagonists, especially, we often work hard to create an impression of intelligence and capability, which clashes with the very idea of making mistakes. Fortunately, there are patterns to the ways in which regular people (even the smart ones) make mistakes. There are dozens of such patterns, but here are three you might draw on when looking for a good reason why your smart protagonist might do something dumb.

The bandwagon effect

This is more classically known as your mother asking you “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” The fact is, the world is a complicated place, and taking the time to deeply evaluate the wisdom of everything we might consider doing would just take too long. One of the shortcuts we use to make decisions without all the bothersome evaluation is to use other people’s behavior as a proxy for the evaluation. If we see two restaurants side by side, and only one has a line of people at the door waiting to get in, we’re likely to conclude that one is the better of the two restaurants.

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an awful grease-pit, about to be shut down by the health department, but the owners decided to go out with a bang by holding a “5-cent beer night” special and putting up flyers all over the local college campus. That’s the bandwagon effect in action. Or, taking up smoking because the people at your job all seem to smoke. Or putting all your money into tulip bulbs, silver, or sub-prime mortgages without regard to the underlying strength of those investments.

The bandwagon effect can be quite powerful, and can readily overwhelm rational decision making with emotional decision making. You see a bunch of other people doing something, and you start to think there must be some sense to it. Or worse, you may start to think that you are missing out on whatever it is all those other people know.

For certain types of “going along with the crowd” mistakes, see if there’s a crowd you can create in your novel that you could use to sucker your protagonist into a bad decision.

Isolation effect

This is when you confuse the ease of remembering an instance of an event of some particular type with the actual likelihood of that kind of event happening. That is, our gut feeling as to whether something is relatively likely or unlikely to happen has more to do with whether we can easily remember experiencing or hearing about that kind of event.

Like the lottery. Even simple mathematical analysis shows the lottery to be, as a friend of mine in college once said, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” But when we think about the lottery, what comes to mind are the news stories about ordinary people winning millions of dollars. Our mind is filled with memories of winning events, highly positive outcomes, but is not filled with a statistically appropriate number of losing events. That is, the millions of people who don’t win the lottery every single week, fail to make it onto the evening news.

It works for bad events, too. Like terrorism. Everyone can easily remember instances of terrorism, like the 9/11 attacks. From a coldly logical, mathematical perspective, such events are incredibly rare. But not one of us who was old enough to understand what was happening on September 11, 2001, is ever going to forget that event. It’s so easy to remember that it can cause people to vastly over-estimate the chances that it’ll happen again, just like it did before. As a result, some people won’t go into a high rise building now because they’re afraid the building will get hit by a plane, despite the fact that they have vastly greater chances of dying from things they do every day. Like crossing the street.

If you need your character to make an irrational decision, consider putting an emotionally significant effect into the character’s backstory (one that will be easy for the character to remember), that would bias the character away from the sensible choice. Maybe your character witnesses a crime, and the smart thing to do is report it to the police. But that would mess up your whole plot; you need the character to avoid going to the police. You could put some kind of bad police experience into the character’s backstory. Maybe when the character was a kid, his dad had a similar experience, and did report the crime to the cops, who then ended up treating him as a suspect too. Maybe the cops showed up at the dad’s place of business, asking a bunch of baseless and embarrassing questions, which caused the dad to lose his job and the family to lose their home. A character with this backstory might well fall sway to the isolation effect and, by over-estimating the risk of being falsely accused, choose not to go to the cops.

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to interpret new information in support of what you already believe. Rationally, we should look at new information to see whether it more strongly supports or contradicts what we believe. Or whether it supports something we don’t believe. But what people actually do, most of the time, is to try to construct a scenario in which new information bolsters existing beliefs. Sometimes, people can tie themselves all in knots, inventing the most bizarre rationalizations by which to harmonize what they believe with contradictory evidence.

For example, let’s say one evening you get it into your head that now is a good time to refinance your house, because you were flipping channels and caught a bit of some pundit show on cable news where some nicely dressed and serious looking guy said “...and so people might think about refinancing.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; you’ll have to do the math to really know. But let’s say that the next morning you turn on the news and hear that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went down by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, lower rates, that guy last night was right! I’m going to call the bank right now!” On the other hand, let’s say the morning news instead told you that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went up by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, rates are going up! I’d better call the bank now, before they go up too much!” That’s confirmation bias.

One of the great things about confirmation bias for novelists is that it works so very well with ambiguous information. Which, let’s face it, is about 99% of what we encounter in our lives. Practically everything is subject to interpretation. Where this really shines as a great tool for novelists is in those situations where you have a character on the brink of making a bad decision, and you need something to push them over the edge. That is, you’ve put the idea into the character’s head already. You’ve built up an emotional drive towards that action, but the character can’t quite commit to it because on some level they may know it’s a bad idea. If that sounds like your situation, drop some kind of ambiguous evidence at the character’s feet, and let them interpret it (or misinterpret it) in support of the emotional decision they already want to make.

I use this all the time in situations where I find myself saying to my characters “I need you to such-and-such, but you’re ordinarily too clever to make that kind of mistake.” Confirmation bias is a great way to dupe your characters without destroying the reader’s sense of the character’s general intelligence and sensibility. The other totally fun thing you can do with confirmation bias (depending on your book’s POV) is to let the reader believe something different than the character, so that the reader interprets the ambiguous evidence in the opposite way as the character, and yet, the reader can still understand why the character makes that wrong choice.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention by way of example, the novel Huge, by James Fuerst. I reviewed this book some months ago here for its wonderful characters and enormously hilarious story and style, but the protagonist’s journey in Huge is the most textbook perfect application of confirmation bias as I can recall ever having read. If you really want to see what a novelist can do with confirmation bias, don’t just read my dinky little blog. Go read that book.

June 26, 2010 04:03 UTC

Tags: character, mistakes, bandwagon effect, isolation effect, confirmation bias, Huge, James Fuerst

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