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Character Behaviors: Rational and Irrational

A big welcome to Dr. Vivian Lawry. Vivian holds a BA, MS, and PhD in psychology and was a professor of psychology prior to her retirement. Today, Vivian, we are going to wrestle with a complex part of the human psyche. In our plots, we try to make the story conform to what a rational person would do, but the truth is that given the right circumstances, motivation, and perception, anyone is capable of anything. Would you help us to understand this concept? Vivian - Circumstances refers to options and constraints. Motivation refers to what drives the person. Perception is what the person thinks is going on. All of these offer writers lots of room for making anything happen—believably. Fiona - Can you describe the famous Zimbardo prison experiment to give context? Vivian - The Zimbardo prison experiment is classic! Here's a quick and dirty overview that hits the highpoints: The basic question was whether ordinary people would/could be as cruel as Nazi concentration camp guards, or whether the Nazis were truly aberrant. So they advertised in newspapers around Palo Alto, CA, for people to participate in a paid psychological study. Volunteers were screened with all the psychological tests they could think of to make sure they were healthy, stable personalities. Then they were RANDOMLY assigned to be either prisoners or guards. The guards were issued uniforms and reflecting sunglasses. The prisoners--all men-- were picked up from their homes by real police cars, sirens blasting, handcuffed, and taken to the "jail", which had been created in the basement of a campus building. They were stripped of their street clothes and issued night-shirt type garments, flip-flops for shoes, and stockings on their heads to simulate a shaved head. The prisoners were given no directions (as far as I recall). The guards--also all men--were told to maintain order. In a matter of days the prisoners were depressed, plotting a break-out, weeping, and compliant with the guards. The guards, for no apparent reason, had become controlling and abusive. They told the prisoners to stand in line and count-off repeatedly, or do push-ups till they collapsed. One guard made them do push-ups while pressing his foot on their backs. The experimenters terminated the experiment early. And I should mention that everyone involved got counseling and so forth after. But the strength of this work is demonstrating the incredible power of circumstances in shaping behavior. These two groups of people differed only in which circumstance they were randomly assigned to. Fiona - I know the researches were astonished by the outcomes. Do you have information about how the students felt following the experiment and if there were lasting effects? Vivian - As I recall, not all of the participants were students—not that that's important. All were distressed and were given group and individual counseling. I haven't heard of long-term negative effects. But it definitely shook the foundations of certainty about what ordinary people would do when thrown into extraordinary circumstances. You don't know how you will behave till you are there. Within each group there were variations: some guards were noticeably nicer than others, though they didn't stop the abuse. Some prisoners had sleep disorders and some became aggressive themselves. And the whole thing caused a huge upheaval and contributed to the dialogue that led to the creation of ethical standards for research in psychology. Fiona -

Reasonable man theory refers to a test whereby a hypothetical person is used as a legal standard, especially to determine if someone acted with negligence. This hypothetical person referred to as the reasonable/prudent man exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct that society requires of its members for the protection of their own and of others' interests. This serves as a comparative standard for determining liability. For example, the decision whether an accused is guilty of a given offense might involve the application of an objective test in which the conduct of the accused is compared to that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances.

The above "reasonable man" definition is often used as a court standard. Now imagine if you will an unreasonable circumstance - an out of the ordinary event - a man standing in your room, and you have to chose to shoot or not. According to science, unreasonable circumstances lead to unreasonable outcomes. Can you talk about the ability to think/process/and react reasonably under high stress circumstances? When is "reasonable" unreasonable to ask of our characters? Vivian - High stress increases the likelihood of the dominant action. If a behavior is well-learned, as in the case of a professional athlete or musician, the stress of a command performance at Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall would actually improve performance. For the less skilled athlete or musician, it would increase the likelihood of mistakes. In the sort of situation you are describing, people when frightened tend toward either fight or flight. Whichever is the dominant pattern for your character should predict the outcome. Fiona - That is a very interesting point. What are some other ways that we could predict the outcome even if it were out of character. I will give you an example I recently read... The mother, in a John Gilstrap book, was kidnapped with her son. The son wanted to be proactive. The mom wanted to conform to whatever the kidnappers wanted them to do - she thought safety came from docility. She was docile by character. What might spur someone to act "other than"? and by that I mean other than their nature would predict Vivian - This goes to the point of what is the best perceived alternative. If the son can make the case that active is better, Mom would go along. Or if she does something as told and then she or her son is punished anyway, she might see the light. She might see or hear something that says the kidnappers/guards/whoever can't be trusted to reward docility, that could do it, too. Fiona - In this vein, can you talk about Stockholm Syndrome? Vivian - I'm not an expert on Stockholm Syndrome, but here goes: there is a lot of evidence from a lot of sources that victims tend to identify with their abusers. For example, children who are abused are more likely to grow up to be abusive themselves. In a somewhat related vein, there is evidence that when a powerful or popular figure espouses a point of view/attitude/action, others do the same. (The whole basis of political endorsements or celebrities in commercials.) With Stockholm Syndrome, you have a person who is under complete control of some other person or group, everything from food, being allowed to sleep, physical abuse or the threat of it. It doesn't get much more powerful than that. Under such circumstances, people start to doubt themselves and their view of reality. The younger the person is--the less formed his/her sense of self—or the more unstable the personality, the more likely that person is to accept the reality as given by the authority figure. Often victims of abuse have low self-esteem and come to believe that they deserve whatever happens to them. Fiona - Last question - How can we apply what we learned today to our character development (for good or bad) and our plotlines? Vivian - I think the most basic tip is to take the reader inside the character's head/heart, to see the world as s/he sees it. Behavior is believable when it flows from the character's perceptions. In my recently published collection of short stories, DIFFERENT DRUMMER, one story involves a man who feeds parts of his body to his cat. I invite you to decide whether his behavior was believable, in context. Thank you so much for your insights, Vivian. If you want to stay in touch with Vivian you an reach her on her website, and you can follow her on Facebook.

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