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Between Cliché and Creativity: The Psychology of Expectations in Story
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual competition created by Scott E. Rice, Professor of English at San Jose State University, in which participants are invited "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Rice named the contest after the English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who is famous for the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which comes from his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.
This year, Cathy Bryant from Manchester, England, won first prize for this gem:
As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are true the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is, in effect, a commentary on clichés. The problem with Bryant’s paragraph, aside from the long-winded, jargon heavy description of the man’s face, is that it centers on one of the most clichéd similes in literature: the eyes as a window into the soul.
If good writing stimulates, the hallmark of a good writer is his ability to surprise the reader. To this end the problem with clichés is their predictability. A captivating story builds up tension; it generates expectations until somewhere near the end the writer incorporates a twist that catches the reader off guard. A well-placed ruse might be shocking at first but it is ultimately more rewarding. Average writers deliver what’s expected; good writers maintain a certain level of unpredictability. As Dali put it, "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."
One way to avoid clichés is to ditch traditional plot lines and focus on life as it is actually lived. This is the goal of some postmodern writers. The problem with this so-called hyperrealist fiction is it does away with the most important element of story: conflict.
There’s a memorable scene in Charlie Kaufman’s 2003 movie, Adaptation that highlights the inherent problem with trying to avoid clichés. The main character Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) attends a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee, a legendary screenwriting teacher who lectures on good screenwriting principles and techniques (the character is based off of the real Robert McKee who is famous for writing the book Story, which is said to have influenced countless Hollywood screenwriters). Finding McKee’s recommendations clichéd, Kaufman asks: “What if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change? They don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved; more of a reflection of the real world.”
Unimpressed, McKee responds with a diatribe against Kaufman’s hyperrealism:
The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches a mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life. And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
McKee is right. Despite Kaufman’s obsession with originality, avoiding clichés altogether is impossible and unnatural. This is the paradox of clichés: writers strictly avoid them even though an effective story requires them. To this end a good story balances what’s expected with the unforeseen; it compensates for overused phrases, plot lines or characters with moments of surprise and unexpectedness. The question is why most people don’t mind clichés while experienced writers fiercely reject them. Why, in other words, do the majority gush over big blockbusters with happy endings while a minority of experts (the critics) lampoon them? Why does an acclaimed writer such as Charlie Kaufman dedicate a whole screenplay to lambasting them?
The answer is a brief lesson in evolutionary psychology. From an evolutionary perspective the brain’s capacity to accurately predict the future confers significant biological advantages. Natural selection favored our ancestors who developed cognitive mechanisms that could foresee and compute the probability of future events. When they predicted accurately they were rewarded; when they didn’t they were doomed.
The same general process occurs when we engage a story. We take great pleasure in accurately predicting how a book or movie will end. People enjoy J.K. Rowling books and Michael Bay movies because they are familiar and easy to predict and because familiarity and accurate predictions are pleasurable. The disappointment of an inexperienced reader or moviegoer is the disappointment of someone not having his or her aesthetic expectations confirmed. They were expecting X but they got Y; a story is rarely enjoyable when it’s hard to follow.
What’s different about experts? Why do they welcome unexpected plot twists and criticize clichés? Another paradox is that although the brain benefits from making accurate predictions it also takes pleasure in getting faked-out. Writing in a slightly different context the cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley suggests that this is not necessarily because humans enjoy getting tricked but because we enjoy the feeling of “figuring it out.” This acute sentiment is called mirth, and Hurley defines it as “the pleasure in unearthing a particular variety of mistake in active belief structures.” A good writer evokes mirth by tricking the reader into believing the story is headed in one direction when it is actually going in a different direction. To a certain extent laypeople enjoy surprising plot twists too – Harry Potter and Armageddon aren’t totally predictable. The difference between them and experts is that it takes a higher level of sophistication on behalf of the writer to trick the expert.
Another answer to the question of why the brain is attracted to both predictability and surprise is that novelty plays a crucial role in how we appreciate not just stories but all types of art. As a general rule the brain seeks novel stimuli: babies get tired of toys, adults get tired of the same sitcoms, and it’s nearly impossible for anybody to enjoy the same song on repeat. This happens because of habituation, or the gradual loss of interest from repeated stimuli. The late cognitive psychologist Colin Martindale calls habituation “the single force that has pushed art always in a consistent direction ever since the first work of art was made.” The goal of the artist is to counter habituating audiences by finding the right balance between the new and the old. (Typically, a small dose of novelty suffices – anything entirely unfamiliar is usually meet with confusion and sometimes chaos.) The difference between the novice and the expert is that the expert maintains higher standards for what counts as novel. Impressing the expert is challenging because matching his criteria for novelty requires a high degree of talent and original thinking.
In sum, good writing is mostly familiar with moments of unforeseen yet sophisticated new ideas, plot lines or characters. What we consider novel is relative to our experience; the more exposure we have to a genre the higher are standards are. Novelty is important because it counters habituation and influences moments of mirth, which are particularly difficult to instill in the mind of an expert. Bulwer-Lytton’s, “It was a dark and stormy night,” has a special place in writing because its overuse is universally acknowledged; it is the common denominator of unoriginal writing.
Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.
- If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
- Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
- In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A study finds people are more influenced by what the other party says than their own. What gives?
- A new study has found evidence suggesting that conservative climate skepticism is driven by reactions to liberal support for science.
- This was determined both by comparing polling data to records of cues given by leaders, and through a survey.
- The findings could lead to new methods of influencing public opinion.
Mind the cues<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The gulf in accepting the science behind climate change also exists among party elites. It is well known to any American who is attentive to the news, as party leaders are often more than willing to discuss their take to journalists.</p><p>Using polling data going back to the 1980s, the researchers were able to create a chart showing the aggregate amount of climate skepticism among the general population. A similar diagram showing the Republicans' skepticism dating back to 2001 was sourced from a previous, similar study. It was shown to be highly correlated with the one produced for this study.</p><p>These charts were compared with media content from prominent newspapers that included implicit or explicit stances on climate change by significant political figures. These thousands of articles were classified by using key terms and which major political figures were quoted or referenced. The researchers compared the number of cues over time to measured skepticism and looked for "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granger_causality" target="_blank">Granger causality</a>," the tendency for one variable to predict the future value of another variable.</p><p>The model shows evidence of both in and out-group cue effects, though the repulsion to out-group cues was much more evident. A significant increase in Democratic cues in favor of climate science was followed by a rise in skepticism among Republican voters. Importantly, the cues lead, rather than follow opinion, and do so with consistency. Changes in view did not predict changes in the number or direction of cues. </p><p>The researchers also surveyed nearly 3000 adults to demonstrate the concept. This involved showing them a statement on the scientific consensus around climate change and a cue from either a Republican or a Democrat. This test confirmed the previous observation and provided further support for the notion that signals from leaders cause an increase in skepticism among some respondents.</p><p>Before my left-leaning and Democratic readers get too smug, this research references previous studies demonstrating a similar effect in the lead up to the Iraq War. However, in that case, the Democratic Party elites' mixed messages were countered by a Republican Party united behind the idea of invasion. The effect on the Democratic party rank and file was similar to that observed in this case. </p><p>Several other studies have examined effects similar to this for other issues. This study's importance is its focus on out-group cues and the effort placed into demonstrating a causal relationship between the statements of certain party elites and public opinion. Most previous studies focused purely on in-group cues or failed to differentiate between the two. </p>
Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?
- There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
- Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
- While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
“Upward” versus “downward” counterfactual thinking<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDM2MDY2OX0.njWs1qrV1vDBxU1V75tUduUW4TjJvEHglDWsK8ZF2l4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C556%2C0%2C209&height=700" id="a15fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98314d4d2b256ed08f42d369fe4ae080" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of man thinking about the past one line drawing counterfactual thinking" />
What are upward and downward counterfactual thinking?
Image by one line man on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is upward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Upward counterfactual thinking happens when we look at a scenario and ask ourselves "what if" in terms of how our life could have turned out better. </p><p>Examples of upward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago - my life would be so much better if I had." </em></li><li><em>"I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and became an actor…"</em> </li></ul><p>Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved. </p><p><strong>What is downward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Downward counterfactual thinking is, naturally, the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking in that we think about how things could have been worse if other decisions had been made. </p><p>Examples of downward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I'm so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned - I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…" </em></li><li><em>"I'm so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can't imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn't support me…"</em> </li></ul><p>In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now. </p>
How counterfactual thinking can impact your life<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjI2MDQxOX0.DIVQ-Yk0d6yE3tc743MH1Fz2pOg1TGHLmhp8dPp9UdY/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="522d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="da7df6ad916b043e3610223900d0f8df" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="man thinking what if written on chalkboard" />
How do upward and downward counterfactual thinking impact your life?
Photo by Brasil Creativo on Shutterstock<p>While many people don't see the point in "what if" scenarios, various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking can be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking. Not only that, but research has also shown upward counterfactual thinking can be linked with current and future depression.</p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health </strong></p><p>According to a <a href="http://journal.sjdm.org/jdm06136.pdf" target="_blank">2000 study</a>, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with depression </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735816301714#:~:text=An%20upward%20counterfactual%20(as%20opposed,Markman%20and%20McMullen%2C%202003)." target="_blank">According to a 2017 study</a> that pooled a sample of over 13,000 respondents, thoughts about "better outcomes" and regret (upward counterfactual thinking) were associated with current and future depression. </p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking can actually improve your relationships and is more often engaged in by women than men.</strong></p><p>In a <a href="https://dspace.sunyconnect.suny.edu/bitstream/handle/1951/67589/Studer_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank">2016 research paper submitted</a> to the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, downward counterfactual thinking in regards to romantic relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to engage in downward counterfactual thinking about their romantic life. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits in certain scenarios. </strong></p><p>When we look back after a failed test and think "I wish I would have studied more" - this motivates us to study harder the next time a test comes up. In this way, upward counterfactual thinking (or the negative version of "what if") can actually benefit us. </p> <p><strong>This can be difficult, though, because much of the time upward counterfactual thinking is more associated with a pessimistic outlook that can be unmotivating. </strong></p> <p>Thinking in the past tense can be motivational (and even healthy) at times, but the best thing to do is look forward. </p><p>While counterfactual thinking as a whole can be used to motivate us to make better choices or appreciate where we are in life, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201809/the-psychology-what-if" target="_blank">this Psychology Today</a> article suggests that we should come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Using counterfactual thinking as a motivational tool can be very helpful if we don't get stuck in the "what if" mindset that tends to pull us out of the present and back into the past, where things will always remain the same. </p>