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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » cognitive dissonance and other perception problems

   
Author Topic: cognitive dissonance and other perception problems
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Cognitive dissonance and plain, ordinary denial are two of the psychological phenomena that absolutely amaze me for their power over the ways people perceive things around them.

They are so powerful and interesting (in my opinion), that I think it would be cool to figure out how to convey them in stories. The closest I've seen to something like that, however, is when an author uses what is called an "unreliable narrator," and the tricky thing about such narrators is that because they are unreliable, and probably don't know it, it's very hard to get their unreliability across to the readers.

Examples of unreliable narrators might be in Ford Madox Ford's THE GOOD SOLDIER, and, I suspect, Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peter's Egyptian mysteries. (Amelia Peabody drove me so crazy as an unreliable narrator that I couldn't keep reading the books.)

By the way, a simple definition of cognitive dissonance is only perceiving what you want or expect to perceive (see or hear or feel or whatever). It's the only explanation I can think of for why people don't recognize that Clark Kent is Superman with glasses on.


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Symphonyofnames
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William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" has about 19 narrators, half of them unreliable.
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extrinsic
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

I see cognitive dissonance as both causal of and an effect of cognitive biases.

As I know it, an unreliable narrator is one whose interpretation of events can't entirely be trusted due to mental impairments of the narrator, like from brain damage, developmental impairments, or intoxication to the point of mental impairment.

One challenge that can also be a desirable trait in an unreliable narrator story derives from testing suspension of disbelief's limits. To work effectively, the narrator probably should be shown right up front as unreliable, yet insightfully, naively cognizant despite a mental impairment. On the other hand, a seriously impaired individual may not be believable as a narrator. Doesn't have to be funny either.
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Warning! Tear-jerking tragic anecdote follows.

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Back a couple decades ago, I babysat an acquaintance's little girl born with developmental impairments so the mother could have an occasional night out. A precious, sparkly little angel despite the challenges Providence faced her with, she enjoyed life. At home with her mom when she was five, in an instant of distraction, she put a lit christmas bulb in her mouth. The image of the mother bereft beside the tiny white coffin remains etched in my memory. Despite the girl's impairments, she told delightful and precociously insightful stories. She loved to be read to.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 03, 2009).]


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Andrew_McGown
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The classic is Nick Carraway in Great Gatsby.
He only related those things to the reader that served his agenda.

An unreliable narrator does not have to be somehow 'impaired' he just has to want to portray things in such a way as to serve his purpose.

Like when Homer Simpson goes in bowing and scraping to Burns in order to get his job back, but when he retells it to his mates at the tavern, he portrays himself as having gone in there and demanded his job back. Unreliable narrator. The facts are ostensibly correct, the interpretation or 'spin' may not be.

Spin-doctors are unreliable narrators in many ways. It can take a special determination and skill to see things the way you want to see them.

Edit: Extrinsic, I am sorry about the young child, but I am finding it hard to see how the anecdote connects with the idea of an unreliable narrator. What was the mother's impairment? Grief? ( I have been known to be very thick-headed )

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited August 03, 2009).]


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Doc Brown
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Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator? I cannot accept that. I believe that Fitzgerald intended Nick Carraway to be completely reliable.

I think the classic example is Huck Finn. Huck exaggerates details and misjudges the other characters, but the reader understands that this is happening and so the story makes sense. This works because Twain announces that Huck will be an unreliable narrator on the first page.


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Doc Brown
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As for Kathleen's question, I find myself wondering if there weren't some touches of Cognitive Dissonance in the graphic novel Watchmen.

Consider this: Two of the Watchmen may experience CD.

At the beginning, The Comedian knows something that disagrees with his beliefs about the world. Offstage he struggles to come to grips with this but his mind never resolves it.

The same thing happens to Rorschach at the end of the story. He learns something that disagrees with his concept of the world. Within minutes this knowledge drives him mad. This struggle is completely onstage and to resolve it Rorschach is willing to destroy the world.

I won't post spoilers about what happens to these characters. My question is: could either of these be an example of CD in a character?


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extrinsic
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An unreliable narrator is one mentally incapable of accurately perceiving and accurately interpreting events. An untrustworthy narrator might spin interpretations to his liking. He's capable of interpreting truthfully but chooses not to. Eg, a pathological liar knows he lies, though can't help lying. He's not an unreliable narrator. Unreliable reporter, yes, but there's a hidden agenda in there somewhere.

And, yes, Doc Brown, those examples are precisely what cognitive dissonance is as I know it, "Psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously," Webster's 11th Collegiate.

Cognitive dissonance isn't necessarily internal to an individual, it can be a group effect, even a nation-state effect.
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quote:
Extrinsic, I am sorry about the young child, but I am finding it hard to see how the anecdote connects with the idea of an unreliable narrator. What was the mother's impairment? Grief? (I have been known to be very thick-headed)

The little girl had developmental challenges. She could still tell a meaningful, if unreliably narrated story. I recorded one of her stories that touched me deeply. I can't share it here. It's one of those beautifully tragic kind of stories that shows the preternatural insight of a cognitively impaired person.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 03, 2009).]


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annepin
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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon in as excellent example of a well-executed unreliable narrator. The story is told through the eyes of the autistic, 15-year-old boy, in first person narrative. Haddon manages to make the boy's perspective entirely believable, and yet still give you enough information that you can interpret events yourself, and come to completely different conclusions than the MC does.

As for denial, hm, that's a little trickier. I think William Barton manages it in [i]When Heaven Fell[i]. THe MC there is in denial about what he wants, what he's willing to do, and what he can do.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 03, 2009).]

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 03, 2009).]


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Heresy
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Okay, I had to check around, because the definition of unreliable narrator Extrinsic is giving doesn't jive with what I remember from Lit class. Every definition I've read (and that now numbers over a dozen) makes *no* reference to any kind of mental impairment being required. Most of them cite as possible causes for being unreliable as a narrator things like incomplete understanding of either events or situations, naivete or hidden agendas. I'm not going to rule out impairment as a possible cause, but it isn't a necessary cause. It's just on the list.

The reason I want to make this point is that some of the more interesting unreliable narrators I've run across in fiction had no impairment, just viewed and reported events through a slightly colored glasses (not necessarily rosy either). I wish I could think of an example right now, but I'm too tired. I'll go through my library in the morning to look for a good one.

Here's one of the better definitions I found on my hunt:

http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1O56-unreliablenarrator.html

Heresy


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extrinsic
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A classic example of there are no absolutes in story. Two schools of thought not in concordance. I encountered both in literature and writing classes.

I'm inclined toward the more prescriptive meaning on this one. Having experienced cognitive impairments secondhand, and from reading and writing related to my experiences.

On another hand, a narrator with an untrusted perspective calls into question whether any report is truly reliable, be it in fiction, creative nonfiction, or reporting fact. Ten witnesses to a crime, ten observed versions of the crime with all the inherent biases from varied perspectives. Three cameras, three versions?

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 03, 2009).]


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Andrew_McGown
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Watching the BBC special on the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, I was amazed by the content of the intercepted phone calls between the 'gunmen' and their 'controllers'.

One, I think, was a good example of cognitive disonance, the 'gunman' was being urged by his 'controllers' to execute the hostages. The 'gunman' clearly did not want to kill them. He delayed and avoided it for an hour or an hour and a half.

When he had done it, all he wanted was for the controller to pray for him.

My interpretation of what I heard led me to suspect that the 'gunman' had considered himself a good man, a chosen vessel of his god, and that there was an intellectual assent to the act he had just committed. However, every ounce of his humanity seemed to scream at him that he had just done a terrible, vile and evil thing.

He was caught in a sharp and painful no-mans-land between two acute, but contradictory views of himself.

It was gut-wrenching. ( The whole thing. Every bit. )

PS: Is Clark Kent really Superman?

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited August 03, 2009).]


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BoredCrow
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I give you the Official Explanation as to why no one knows that Clark Kent is Superman:
http://superdickery.com/images/stories/stupor/side22li.jpg

I should note that though the particular comic I've linked to is safe for all ages, small portions of the site are 13 and up. (Kathleen, you can take down the link if you'd like. Or delete this post entirely. )

[This message has been edited by BoredCrow (edited August 04, 2009).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I think denial plays a part when people have a psychological need to reject whatever is causing them to experience cognitive dissonance. That's one reason I mentioned them together in my initial post.
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Andrew_McGown
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Hah!
That explains everyhting.
It all seems so simple now.

( The smileys are to amplify my hypnotic effect.)

EDIT: KDW: Sorry, that was for bored cow.

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited August 04, 2009).]


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extrinsic
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I'm recollecting an odder cognitive dissonance moment in college. One of my literature professors was an acknowledged feminist. She insisted on using masculine pronouns as neuter pronouns. She took points of for indeterminate female pronouns or nonnumbered use of plural pronouns like their. I had a time reconciling her feminism with a feminist consensus against male pronouns used in neuter contexts. I reconciled the dissonance by realizing she was formally correct according to the MLA style manual she cited as authority, but supposed she took a secret pleasure in thinking of formal neuter masculine pronouns as emasculation.
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Andrew_McGown
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Now that's an impairment!
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Robert Nowall
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Wasn't it the Red Queen who believed six impossible things before breakfast? People often hold a variety of beliefs that, looked at rationally, seem to contradict each other.

I was just reading a commentary on Southern segregationists and the views they often expressed about liberty and justice the United States. One has no reason to doubt the sincerity of these different beliefs, or how deeply held they all were...but one can see the contradictions plainly.


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rich
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Patrick McGrath is a novelist who makes a living using the unreliable narrator; I think all of his novels have an unreliable narrator. I also think he's gone to that same well once too many times (actually, twice), but I think Grotesque and Asylum are his best. Both made into less than mediocre movies.

Side note: SPIDER is a good movie based on his novel of the same name, but I can see why only about six people actually saw this in the theater. Ralph Fiennes is a schizophrenic who literally does nothing in the film but mutter unintelligibly, and watching his memories come to life before him.


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dee_boncci
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Anytime you have a close first person POV, you have an "unreliable" narrator to some degree because the reader sees what the character perceives as it's shaped by his/her emotions, perspective, and limitations. In a sense, it is "truth" for the character, but is subjective almost by definition. Unless maybe it is Spock's POV. I guess it's a matter of to what degree the perception is distorted that determines where the line for an "unreliable narrator" is drawn.

I don't recall reading an example myself, but I have read about using the unreliable narrator first person narrator and find it an intriguing subject. I've also read that conventional literary wisdom at one time was that portraying the unreliable narrator was the only legitimate reason to use first person POV.

I've seen the same effect from close 3rd person POVs, especially when a "villian" is portrayed. One example that pops into my mind is The Stand where characters with warped perception like Trash Can Man get a moment or two of POV time.

I guess all that kind of stuff is why I favor closer POVs over distant or omniscient perspectives.


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Andrew_McGown
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Have you guys ever seen The machinist
There is a plot description here.

Unreliable narrator as a result of cognitive disonance/denial.
.
.
.

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited August 04, 2009).]


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KayTi
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Thought I'd add in a more thorough description of cognitive dissonance, since as per kdw's original post, the unreliable narrator is just one way to portray a kind of cognitive dissonance in fiction.

I'm interested in expanding the conversation to see what other ways we can portray cognitive dissonance in fiction. To do so, I think we need a broader definition than just the Webster's one.

Here's what Britannica's website had:

quote:
the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in a person is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: the person rejects, explains away, or avoids the new information, persuades himself that no conflict really exists, reconciles the differences, or resorts to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in his conception of the world and of himself. The concept, first introduced in the 1950s, has become a major point of discussion and research.


In my undergrad work in Cognitive Science a hundred years ago, we talked about cognitive dissonance in terms of that unease or tension that was created. In particular (I work in corporate training/adult learning), we talked about creating situations of cognitive dissonance as a learning tool.

"What the heck just happened? That wasn't what I expected?" naturally leads to a learning/teachable moment. "Hmm...*why* did that happen?" It's this point in the instruction when the adult learner (same theories apply to many learners, but my background is specifically geared toward adult learners) is most ready to learn, most ready to receive all that wonderful content that the writers have put together for him/her.

What I describe there is a good example of someone working to reconcile the differences. But the other parts of this definition from britannica are fascinating. "Resorts to any other defensive means of preserving stability..." Doesn't that sound just wonderfully...diabolical?


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arriki
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I just realized that my current WIP is one of these. An unreliable narrator in over his head in a situation he doesn't control although he believes he does. But the reader (I hope) doesn't realize this until the end. It has been a tricky story to write. In my story's case there are several implied stories here because of the nature (?) of an unreliable narrator.

I think --- !


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annepin
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It seems like CD could come into play with trust and loyalty. I.e. the MC trusts and remains loyal to a friend or mentor, despite what people might say about that person. The MC then tries to explain away all the weird this his or her mentor/ friend does. Others accuse the mentor/ friend of wrong doing, but the MC remains in denial until he or she is confronted by something undeniable.
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extrinsic
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The types of cognitive biases that intrigue me most are ones that cause skewed perceptions and inherently characterize a perceiver. Confimation bias is one in particular that I find useful for evaluating a message published in any medium.

"In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and to irrationally avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference, or as a form of selection bias toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study or disconfirmation of an alternative hypothesis.

Confirmation bias is of interest in the teaching of critical thinking, as the skill is misused if rigorous critical scrutiny is applied only to evidence challenging a preconceived idea but not to evidence supporting it." Wikipedia: Confirmation Bias.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Ooh! Confirmation bias sounds particularly interesting because of the contortions logic has to go through in order to make it work.

I am fascinated by such contorted logic.


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Merlion-Emrys
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What this all makes me think of, along with Kathleen's mention of nobody realizing Clark Kent is Superman, is what happens in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Wherein the people of Sunnydale regularly have experiences with vampires and other supernatural creatures but more or less block them out, or come up with "rational" explanations.

I tried to convey something similar with one of my recent stories, with mixed success. It's something that plays in strongly with the themes I often write about as far as modern culture denying the supernatural. Its something I think we also face when writing modern-setting fantasy as far as how "regular" people deal with such things.

Not related to the "unreliable narrator" I know, but I believe this would count as a form of cognitive dissonance.


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philocinemas
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Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias can be the same or polar opposites, depending on the POV and the conflict.

The conflict between fundalmentalist Christianity and evolution is the easiest example I can think of:

Many believe evolution to be false based entirely on their belief system. They find evidence that supports their belief and try to discard evidence that is in contradiction. This is then reinforced by demonizing the motives of scientists that support evolution.

On the other hand, people who support evolution, which is held with a little more fervor than just theory, often dismiss or ridicule evidence, or lack thereof, that points out holes in the theory.

Religious fervor is one of the primary causes of cognitive dissonance. Prejudism and bigotry are another source.

I am curious, would "Flowers for Algernon" be considered an example of cognitive dissonance? The reason I ask is that I'm not sure if Charlie should be considered unreliable.

Another question I am curious about exploring is how an unreliable narrator is used in withholding to allow for surprises in a story - O'Henry style - and why people find this unpleasing.


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extrinsic
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A very intellectually sexy concept in confirmation bias. Yet unlike the Turkey City Lexicon version disparaging intellectual sexiness; wherein, the intellectual sexiness of a novel, glamorous scientific idea is distinguished from any actual intellectual merit it may one day possess, I believe confirmation bias has long legs for story in a multitude of perspectives. Say, using NASA evidence for lunar landings to demonstrate the Apollo Moon landings didn't occur. That conspiracy theory spawned a sub-subgenre of science fictional thriller films, Capricorn One 1978, for example.

Since components of causation and tension in fiction rely on discovery and reversal, an initial goal for a protagonist might include proving a distorted viewpoint. Uncovering contradictory evidence could add a layer of complex antagonism to the process.

Say, proving an idea, like setting out to prove beyond all doubt that the Earth is at the center of a Ptolemaic Universe and gradually discovering that it's not so.
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A general advisory. SFWA updated its Web site recently. All previous links to their Web pages are no longer active. The content is the same, just at different addresses. Myrtle the Manuscript is still there, Turkey City Lexicon, Writer's Beware, and wrting on writing pages, still there in all their quality and quantity.
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[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 05, 2009).]


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extrinsic
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I don't see Charlie of Flowers for Algernon in his epistolary narration as either unreliable or in a state of cognitive dissonance.

He reliably reports his experiences from his alternating perspectives to the best of his ability. His discord is caused by external reactions to his changing intellectual prowess. In agony, sure. But I don't see him portrayed as holding an unresolvable or deniable internal discord of values, ideals, or beliefs.

I also don't see O. Henry's stories as withholding or in an unreliable narration. O. Henry selectively chose how he told stories that had surprise endings. Much like any writer writes for purposes of persuasion and stimulation, he selectively told his stories. I don't see them as exemplifying withholding. Nor did he do what I find objectionable about surprise ending stories of the trick or joke type. When a story ends on an absurdity, I feel like the writer has self-servingly toyed with my good-natured interests, patience, and sensibilities, or led me along to spring a surprise intended to humiliate me or rub my nose in my human failings and frailties.

"Card Tricks in the Dark
Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose. (Attr. Tim Powers)" Turkey City Lexicon.

Or a story contrived to showcase an author's cleverness at the expense of insulting a reader's intelligence. Joke ending stories that a reader will get but finds reading the story a monumental waste of time. Shaggy dog stories are one type of joke ending. Leg-pulling stories are another that end with something like, And Jim was caught exiting the basement window by a shaggy dog pulling on his leg, like I'm pulling yours.

I read a story once that ended with the revelation that the perceptions of an alien race about humanity came from an uncovered archive of films depicting the progress of family relations based on TV families. The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Simpsons. If the story had shown the results of that flawed, or insightful, perception, it might have gone somewhere. As it was, I felt it ended where it should have begun. And it was in the form of a dry, telling lecture to begin with and that telegraphed the ending.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 05, 2009).]


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Andrew_McGown
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In Wizard of the Pigeons (Megan Lindholme) people just ignored what they could not explain.

Brilliant book.


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arriki
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What about the setting in Karl Schroeder's LADY OF MAZES where the people saw only the version of the particular version of the world that they wanted/preferred to inhabit. And that novel of CJ Cherryh's where there were these people dressed in black who moved around everywhere but the humans just refused to admit they existed -- aren't those examples of taking the concept beyond the individual character's problem to entire societies'?
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extrinsic
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"Bandwagon effect--the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behaviour." Wikipedia: List of Cognitive Biases.

Bandwagon effect can be of positive, negative, or neutral valence. Examples; positive, parol causing a novel's popular success; negative, zenophobia; neutral, a fashion or fad that has no readily apparent positive or negative effect. Casual workplace Friday?

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 06, 2009).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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As an example of a bandwagon bias, I remember reading a novel about these hippie-types finding themselves in a world where people were so "narrow-minded" that they actually were unable to see naked people--so the "heroes" were able to escape pursuit by taking their clothes off.

If I remember correctly, I think the book was THE BUTTERFLY KID by Michael Kurland. I also think I read it because it was nominated for the Hugo way back when.


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extrinsic
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I suppose Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," 1837, depicts a bandwagon effect bias, too, parable like. I'm resistant to bandwagon effect because the bandwagon has thrown me to the curb to fend for myself too many times.

Another cognitive bias that floats my bubble, I see post-purchase rationalization also in "The Emperor's New Clothes."

"Post-purchase rationalization is a common phenomenon after people have invested significant time, money, or effort in something to convince themselves that it must have been worth it. Many decisions are made emotionally, and so are often rationalized retrospectively in an attempt to justify the choice.

This rationalization is based on the principle of commitment and the psychological desire to stay consistent to that commitment. Some authorities would also consider this rationalization a manifestation of cognitive dissonance." Wikipedia: Post-Purchase Rationalization.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-purchase_rationalization

Story-wise, post-purchase rationalization has thousand-league legs on it in terms of causation, tension, and antagonism; plot, characterization, setting, discourse, theme and message, tone, rhetoric, and resonance.

I'm not as resistant to post-purchase rationalization.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 07, 2009).]


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