An interesting thing happened in American politics this week. Statistician Nate Silver predicted that the Republican Party is likely to take control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections. Some Democrats did not like this simple act of calculation, and said a few words to that effect.
This reminded me of Romney supporters in September of 2012. At the time, polls were showing a slight lead for Obama, and from the Romney supporters there was a lot of talk about how Silver’s number may have been right in the past, but things were different in this election, and he was weighing the polls wrong… etc.
This little back and forth brings up two things that can make your characters, especially your villains more believable: Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance. And just for fun, I’m going to use ridiculous political examples.
Confirmation Bias is the tendency to give more weight to things that confirm your beliefs. Say Mr. Example who belongs to a political party believes that the opposing party is the party of “Tax and buy Papaya.” He watches a TV show that does a segment about the president (a member of the opposing party) visiting the Kenyan embassy and eating Papaya. The next day, a prominent newspaper runs a story about how the president only eats Papaya once or twice a year, yet he is known to finish and entire pineapple in one sitting. Chances are, Mr. Example is going to spend more time thinking about dirty Papaya eaters.
Cognitive Dissonance happens when someone comes into contact with a bit of knowledge that they believe, but is in contradiction to what they previously believed. Let’s catch up to Mr. Example after an election when his president is in charge. The thing Example really likes about his president is her teetotalling and strict sense of morality. He is in the supermarket and he sees a newspaper with a picture of their president drunk with a man, who is not her husband. Cognitive dissonance forces Mr. Example to either ignore the story or minimize it–maybe the picture was taken out of context. Maybe she was flushed and dizzy because she had an inner ear infection. Maybe the man just grabbed her because she was about to fall. Maybe the vodka bottle in her hand was refilled with water, because recycling is important.
So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, in a story, your characters are going to act in accordance to these principles. If they’ve always thought that Dan at the office was a good guy, and he offers them a stick of gum, they’re going to take notice, and maybe invite him to their party.
If a character thinks someone in this office is incompetent, he is going to notice every mistake to confirm his bias. When others don’t notice that incompetence, it will grate on the character until he lashes out in anger.
Just something to chew on.