What I Learned from Teaching Psych 101

I just finished up teaching four sections of Psych 100 last week, and there are a few themes which came up over and over that are good things to remember when doing character development. You want your characters to be believable, so knowing how people work on the inside can only help.

First off, one of the big things you learn when you get into the Social Cognition Approach is that there are two ways that people think. There is a slow way you think when you’re trying to figure something out. When you follow a recipe or solve a math equation you are using the slow thinking process. If you’ve ever taken a long math test you remember how taxed you feel at the end of it. The slow process takes time and energy, but it brings you to the correct answer more often than the other process.

As you might expect, the other process is fast. In fact, the decisions we make using this process feel more like recalling information or making snap judgments that they do decisions. That’s if you realize you’re making the decision in the first place. Human beings are cognitively lazy for the most part. The fast process uses a host of biases and heuristics as short-cuts around having to think hard. When we look at someone and assume a group membership based on superficial characteristics, or when we assume shark deaths are higher than deaths related to coconuts falling on people’s heads because shark deaths make the news, we are employing heuristics.

There are a lot of heuristics, such as the Google heuristic where you are less likely to remember information you can easily look up online, and a writer will benefit from knowing what many of them are. Writing falls more often in the slow process arena, but the writer is trying to describe the behavior of someone coming from the fast process. Recalling that people are less likely to remember the phone numbers of even the people they are closest to will make the writing sound more authentic.

Another big point that came up in my class was that if a behavior pattern isn’t a problem for the individual or for the people around them, it isn’t a problem, it’s a personality. If a character is having sex with their partner four times a day that would be considered statistically deviant, but if they’re both okay with it, it isn’t hurting their productivity, and no one else that they care about is concerned, then it’s not really a problem. It would certainly be a better use of time than watching reruns on television.

So as a writer, you have to ask yourself if the reason you are saddling one of your characters with a statistically deviant behavior pattern is because you want the reader to disapprove of the character, the character to be quirky and amusing, or because you want them to overcome the pattern through their journey in the pages. If it is the last one, you have to make sure that they are either feeling the pain through guilt, feeling the guilt of causing other people pain, or recognizing the decrease in functioning at a large enough level to trigger dissonance between their misbehavior and their level of self-esteem.

So this is the first in a series of psychology for writers posts. Please comment below to tell me what you think, ask me a question, or seek out a clarification.

Keep on Thinkin’


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