Writing Roundup: Psychology for Writers

writing roundup psychology writers

I’ve written quite a few blog posts about psychology for writers. I’ve rounded them all up for you here in one convenient place so that you can browse at your leisure!

Do you have any suggestions for additional posts or questions about psychology for writers? Let me know!

Weather for Writers

weather writers
Recently I—along with my plants—have been suffering from the heat. They wilt and wither. I feel lethargic and grumpy. I’m not alone in this. From back in the day when I taught psychology, I’m well aware that weather affects mood and behavior. Indeed, hot summer months are associated with lower mood, and humidity tends to make people more tired and irritable.

 

And it occurs to me, writers might like to know the effects of weather that have been scientifically studied.
 
weather writers
 
SUNSHINE
 
Perhaps one of the best known effects is that people like sunshine—but only if you are able to get out in it. Otherwise, moods likely plummet for people stuck indoors.

 

Pleasant spring weather is associated with higher mood, better memory, and other good cognitive functions.

 

Drivers are more likely to pick up hitchhikers on sunny days than on cloudy days.

 

On sunny days people are more likely to help each other.

 

And Minnesotans tip more generously in restaurants when it’s sunny.

 

College applicants’ non-academic attributes are weighted more heavily on sunny days.

 

On sunny days, a woman is likely to give her phone number to an attractive stranger 22% of the time (compared to 14% of the time on cloudy days).

 

People spend more money when it’s sunny.

 

Being outside during pleasant weather can improve memory and boost creativity.

 

CLOUDS AND RAIN
On the good side, people recall up to seven times more objects when quizzed on cloudy days compared to sunny ones.

 

College applicants’ academic attributes are weighted more heavily on cloudy days. I love the title of this study: Clouds Make Nerds Look Good.

 

On the bad side, as noted above, hitchhikers fare worse on cloudy days.

 

On rainy days, people feel less satisfied with their lives.

 

Changes in barometric pressure can affect mood and cause headaches.

 

Rain can cause you to eat more, especially carbs.

 

Rain can cause pain. Because of the reduction in atmospheric pressure there is an increase in stiffness and a reduction in mobility. Yes, Granny’s knees predicting the weather is supported by science.

 

Some studies have found a relationship between low barometric pressure and suicide.

 

thermometer weather writers
TEMPERATURE
 
The ideal temperature for helping is 68 degrees F. The more the temperature goes above or below that, the lower the rates of helping.

 

Crime rates rise with temperature. During the summer, rates for serious violent crimes, household burglary, and household property damage are significantly higher.

 

Rates of aggression—everything from murders and riots to horn-honking—are higher in hotter years, months, days, and times of day.

 

Baseball pitchers are more likely to hit batters on hot days.

 

Journalists tend to use more negative words on hotter days.

 

Cold temperatures can lead to physical lethargy (much like too much heat).

 

weather writers
WINTER
Lack of sufficient sunshine in winter causes some people to become depressed, a syndrome known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can be treated with light therapy. SAD is sometimes referred to as winter depression. It typically affects people from October through April.

 

Seasonal depression may be mediated by loss of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin). People suffering anxiety and depression are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency, and seniors with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels.

 

Cold temperatures: see above.

 

weather writers
The effects of weather on mood are a combination of biological, psychological, and social. If you need to know why weather is causing your characters to act in specific ways, you can delve into that online!

 

weather writers

Writing 101: Psychology of Uncertainty

psychology uncertainty

Better the devil you know. . .

. . .than the devil you don’t.

 

Perhaps you’ve heard this bit of folk wisdom. It reflects the common understanding that people abhor uncertainty. Predictability is a desired state, even if what is being predicted is negative—to the point of being disastrous, dangerous to the point of being life-threatening.

 

Think prisoners/captives: one powerful way to break down their resistance, to garner compliance, is to increase their uncertainty. This can be done handily by having no natural daylight, and artificial light that cycles on randomly, along with an unpredictable eating schedule, unannounced questioning sessions that sometimes include physical abuse and sometimes don’t—anything that is disorienting.

 

Whole books have been written on uncertainty and its management. For example, see Psychology of Uncertainty by J.D. Smith, W.E. Shields, D.P. Britzman, D. Brothers, and K. Gordon; or The Social Psychology of Uncertainty management and System Justification  by K. VandenBos.

 

The takeaway for writers is that to increase tension, increase uncertainty, decrease predictability.

Given the examples above, the application to action/adventure plots is obvious, but this writing rule applies across genres. Will he/won’t he call? Does she love me or not? Will this disease kill my child? Will my boss understand if I miss another staff meeting? Will I miss my plane? Does the murderer suspect that I know he did it? If your story unfolds in a predictable pattern, your reader will lose interest. Why bother to read what you know is going to happen? Perhaps truly fabulous prose will keep some readers going, but why depend only on that?

What About Healthy Relationships?

I’ve been writing about relationships, both in terms of domestic violence and sexual assault/rape. But what about healthy relationships?

Define healthy relationships

healthy relationships
Key parts of relationships (click to enlarge image)

As I’ve written before, the term “healthy relationships” doesn’t necessarily pertain to just romantic partners; it can also include family and friends. A handout I received during an event with Hanover Safe Place (see image above) listed the following characteristics as being part of a healthy relationship:

  1. Self-esteem: Feeling positive about yourself before you’re able to take care of partners, friends, and family
  2. Communication: Talking out problems, feelings, and ideas, but also being a good listener
  3. Agreements: Promising to be respectful and follow “rules of relationships”
  4. Connections: Having more than one relationship so as to not remain isolated
  5. Balance: A give and take between the two people in the relationship

Are you in a healthy relationship?

An article in Psychology Today, written by Alice Boyes, Ph.D., goes a few steps further. It lists 50 characteristics of healthy relationships. By clicking the link, you can read through these characteristics; if you can answer “yes” to most of these statements, it’s likely you’re in a healthy relationship. Remember to be truthful with yourself!

healthy relationships
Relationship questions (click to enlarge image)

There are also questions you can ask yourself about your relationships (see above handout). These questions vary, but include:

  • Do you make decisions together? Give examples.
  • Do you trust and believe them? Do they trust and believe you?
  • Is your relationship built on choices, not pressure?

What to take away

Healthy relationships are built on equality between the partners. One person should not have most of the power in the relationship! Being in communication with one another, giving as well as receiving, and keeping the relationship balanced are all important to maintain a healthy relationship.

More Writing Lessons from the Campaigns

In Wednesday night’s debate, Clinton said something to the effect that when things are going badly for Trump, he blames others—party leaders, the media, those rigging the election. If I remember correctly—and for the purposes of this blog, that doesn’t really matter—she said that he never takes responsibility for his problems. The point for writers is that she was purporting to identify a pattern of behavior—and patterns of behavior are crucial for your characters.

 

In this blog, I will focus on behaviors people use to protect themselves when things are going badly. These are what psychologists call defense mechanisms. Not to put too fine a point on it, defense mechanisms allow us to hide from ourselves. Most of us don’t realize when we’re using them.
person hiding defense mechanisms political campaign
If you look online, you can find the 7-9 most frequently used defense mechanisms, the 31 Freudian defense mechanisms, etc. I am going with the 15 defense mechanisms Dr. John M. Grohol classified according to how primitive they are.

 

Primitive Defense Mechanisms

Primitive Defense Mechanisms are often effective over the short term but less so over the long term: Denial, Regression, Acting Out, Dissociation, Compartmentalization, Projection, Reaction Formation.
 

Denial

Denial: refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if a panful event, thought, or feeling doesn’t exist. E.g., “I’m not an alcoholic. See how well I’m functioning?”

 

Regression

Regression: going back to an earlier stage of development. E.g., becoming weepy, clinging, maybe reverting to nail-biting or bed-wetting.

 

Acting Out

child acting out defense mechanisms political campaign
Acting Out: behaving in an extreme way when unable to express thoughts or feelings otherwise. E.g., not able to express anger without throwing things, punching things, etc. Includes temper tantrums and self-injury.

 

Dissociation

Dissociation: the person disconnects from the real world for a time, to an interior world free of thoughts, feelings, or memories that are too painful to bear.

 

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization: the person keeps different parts of the self in separate cognitive or emotional compartments to avoid feeling conflict. E.g., a person who beats and tortures prisoners as part of a job but remains a loving spouse and parent at home.

 

Projection

Projection: unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses are “projected” onto someone else, often the object of those thoughts, feelings or impulses. E.g., someone who is uncomfortable around people of a different ethnic group may justify avoiding those people by deciding that they don’t welcome outsiders.

 

Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation: changing unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposite behaviors. For example, a man who is really unhappy in his marriage might make a point of publicly “worshiping” the mother of his children, bringing her presents for no reason, etc.

 

More Mature Defense Mechanisms

More Mature Defense Mechanisms are common among adults, and may be all a person needs, even if not ideal: Repression, Displacement, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Undoing.

 

Repression

 
Repression is when one unconsciously drops unacceptable thoughts, feelings, impulses, or events from memory. It’s done unawares, unlike suppression, when one consciously puts such things aside and refuses to think about them.

 

Displacement

Displacement is when thoughts, feelings, or impulses triggered by an off-limits target are addressed toward another, more acceptable one. E.g., a child who cannot show anger toward a parent may take it out on a sibling, pet, or toy.

 

Intellectualization

intellectualization defense mechanisms political campaign
Intellectualization is dealing with issues by keeping emotions at a distance and focusing on the rational argument or information gathering. For example, someone who is diagnosed with cancer to keeps fear and anxiety at bay by learning every possible thing about treatments, prognosis, etc.

 

Rationalization

Rationalization is, essentially,espousing a reasonable explanation rather than the real explanation. For example, a man is dumped by a woman he really, really likes and decides he probably just wasn’t rich enough for her.

 

Undoing

Undoing is trying to make up for past behavior. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings and then try to be extra nice, complimentary, generous, etc.

 

Mature Defense Mechanisms

Mature Defense Mechanisms are the most constructive and helpful, but more difficult to achieve: Sublimation, Compensation, Assertiveness.

 

Sublimation

 
Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable impulses, thoughts, or impulses into more acceptable channels. Examples would include releasing sexual impulses through non-sexual exercise, redirecting anger into humor or fantasy.

 

Compensation

Compensation is counterbalancing perceived weaknesses with strength in other areas. Done well, it can reinforce positive self-esteem.

 

Assertiveness

assertiveness defense mechanisms political campaign
Assertiveness is fulfilling your needs in a manner that is respectful, direct, firm—and appropriate. Assertive people strike a balance between speaking up for themselves and listening to other people.

 

What defense mechanisms seem to be exhibited by each of the political candidates?

 

white house defense mechanisms political campaign

Most people have more than one means of defense, but tend to rely on a few more often than others. In the extreme, for an addict, the drug of choice is the answer to every problem. As a writer, you need to understand how your characters cope. What are their patterns of behavior? And how effective are they?

Guest Post on Thrill Writing: The Company You Keep

Thrill Writers, The Company You Keep - Does Your Character Act "Out of Character" in a Group Dynamic?

I’m honored to be interviewed on Fiona Quinn’s Thrill Writing, a blog helping thriller writers write it right. 

We talk about why a character might act “out of character,” group mentality, behavior matching, why people might be more passive in groups or more likely to riot, and more.

Excerpt from “The Company You Keep – Does Your Character Act ‘Out of Character’ in a Group Dynamic?”

In this article, we’re talking about what happens to a character when they get into a group where a character might act “out of character”, which is a fun way to develop the plot.

Can you first give us a working definition for “group”

Vivian – We usually think three or more, but some “group” effects are present even with only two. Also, the “group” needn’t be physically present to exert influence.

Fiona – Can you explain that last sentence?

Vivian – Some group memberships are literal memberships–for example, a church congregation, sorority, bridge club, etc. such groups are often in our thoughts, and serve as a reference or standard for behavior even when the member is alone.

Fiona –  Does “group mentality” work both ways? For example, people in a riot become riotous, but people in a disaster, where they see all hands on deck, become heroes?

People in a religious forum feel more religious. . .sort of like a magnifier?

Vivian –  Absolutely. I just mentioned formal groups–which are the ones having the strongest influence at a distance– but crowds, mobs, any physical gathering of people, shapes our behavior to act or remain passive.

Fiona – Can you give us a short tutorial on what we need to know about group dynamics to help write our characters right?

Vivian – Well, there is a phenomenon known as behavior matching, a tendency to do what others around us are doing. This is reflected in everything from eating to body language. Even a person who has eaten his or her fill will eat more if someone else comes in and starts eating. If others are slouching, your character isn’t likely to remain formal.

Fiona – Yes, it’s hard to pass up a piece of chocolate cake when everyone else is moaning about how delicious it tastes.

Just sayin’

Vivian – A related phenomenon–I suppose it could be a subset of behavior matching– has the label diffusion of responsibility. This is the tendency for people to stand passively by when others are present. There was a classic case, decades ago, in which a NYC woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in the courtyard of her apartment. The murder took approximately half an hour, and dozens of her neighbors watched from their windows. No one came to help or even called the police. The more people who could help, the less likely anyone will take responsibility for doing so.

And then there is group disinhibition. This is sort of the opposite. It is that people are more likely to take risks, break the law, be violent when others are doing so. Think looting, or harassing a homeless person. Disinhibition is even more powerful when alcohol is involved. I recently posted a blog on alcohol for writers that goes into that a bit.

But the bottom line is that we behave differently with others present than when alone.

Read more at Thrill Writing

Thank you, Fiona!

A Little Paranoia is Good For Writers

 abstract painting, dark, paranoia
Dictionary definitions of paranoia include: a serious mental illness that causes you to falsely believe that other people are trying to harm you; an unreasonable feeling that people are trying to harm you, do not like you, etc.; a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations; a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others. in common parlance, a belief that people and objects in the environment are out to get you. Paranoia is a rich mine for writers.

 

For one thing, paranoiacs are not happy—how could they be?—and we all know that miserable characters can be extremely effective.

 

painting of a nude, blue, paranoia
But beyond that, writers should know several things. Paranoiacs are often above average in intelligence and function very well over-all within the family and work spheres. Note the phrase above about systematized delusions. They have well-integrated systems of belief that can often convince others that their beliefs are reasonable.

 

Also, the strict definition of paranoia includes several slippery modifiers: falsely believe, unreasonable feeling, excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness. This gives writers a lot of latitude to develop tension.

 

Consider a poster that a classmate in graduate school had in his office:
Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out To Get You.
But perhaps the most value is in the fuzzy edges. For example, people losing their hearing but not yet recognizing the loss often tend toward paranoia: not hearing all that others say, s/he may suspect that people are mumbling or whispering in order to keep secrets.

 

And consider characters who have suspicious tendencies. What about a character who reads—or even writes—a book like one or more of the following.
  • Don’t Let Your Doctor Kill You by Dr. Erika Schwartz with M.J. Peltier
  • The Survivalist’s Handbook: How to Thrive When Things Fall Apart  by Rainer Stahlberg
  • Bug Out: The Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophic Disaster Before It’s Too Late by Scott B. Williams
  • Build The Perfect Bug Out Vehicle: The Disaster Survival Vehicle Guide by Creek Stewart
  • Someone’s Watching You by Forest Lee
  • Dangerous Instincts: Use an FBI Profiler’s Tactics to Avoid Unsafe Situations by M.E. O’Toole and A. Bowman
  • How To Be Safe: Protecting Yourself, Your Home, Your Family, and Your Business from Crime
  • Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People

painting, surreal head, paranoia

Takeaway for Writers

Include characters with suspicions, whether justified or not.

Plot Device 101: Death

CONSIDER SUICIDE. . .as a plot device. Any death is rich in potential for tension as well as for moving a story line forward. But suicide is the richest.

"Writing 101: Death as a plot device", wilted flowers
First know the popular myths about suicide. According to “Five myths about suicide,” a Washington Post Weekly article by Matthew Nock (May 2016), five of these are as follows:

We’re experiencing a suicide epidemic. 

Fact: Suicide is not gaining sudden prevalence. Fewer people are committing suicide today than a hundred years ago.

Suicides are most common during the winter holidays.

Fact: The rate is consistently highest in the spring.

Most suicides are impulsive acts.

Fact: Most people who attempt suicide have a plan, even if the act appears impulsive. Nearly half visit a doctor in the month before their suicide, and nearly two-thirds tell someone they’re thinking about it.

There is a suicide gene.

Fact: There is no such gene—although a family history of suicide does put people at elevated risk of suicide.

We know how to prevent suicide.

Fact: We are not yet able to spot or stop it.

Actual factors that put people at elevated risk for suicide, besides a family history, include depression and substance use.

 

So, with facts in hand, consider your myriad plot options—especially all the emotional turmoil that might swirl among those left behind: guilt for not stopping it; anger that s/he did it; grief at the loss; anxiety about financial strains; shame that a spouse/child was that unhappy; but maybe also fear about something that might be revealed, or that suicide is somehow “catching.”

 

Suicide can fit any genre. If you write mysteries, an apparent suicide might actually be murder—or the result of any number of nefarious acts by self or others. If you write magical realism, maybe someone is dead but not departed. If you write action/adventure, death is a staple; how might suicide twist that? The possibilities for literary fiction are so numerous, I won’t even go there.

 

The bottom line

As a plot device, suicide is too valuable to ignore.

Motivation is in the Eye of the Beholder

eye, green eye, point of view, motivation for writers, authors
 
People have long recognized the eye-of-the-beholder effect with regard to beauty, to the point that it’s a cliché. We’ve all heard jokes that leave us cold—but leave others doubled over with laughter—or vice versa. Writers are well aware that what’s publishable depends more on the evaluation of the editor/agent/publisher than the inherent qualities of the work.

 

So, apply that same awareness to motivation. We cannot know motivation directly. We can see what a person does, hear what a person says. These are two of the most common, most powerful sources of information.
ear, listening, writers, authors, understanding motivation
Sometimes we have other sensory information, meaning touch, taste, or smell. Sometimes the information accumulates over time, perhaps years, and we feel we truly know someone.
woman, author, writer, getting to know someone, motivation
But the bottom line is that we cannot know another from the inside. And that means room for interpretation. How we evaluate a specific behavior (physical or verbal) depends almost exclusively on why we think the person did it.

Writing Prompt: Characters’ Motivations

So writers, here’s your challenge. For each of the actions listed below, come up with three possible motives for the actor: one evil, one altruistic, and one self-interested. I know you can do it.

  1. giving away a million dollars
  2. shooting someone
  3. cutting off a hand or foot
  4. kissing someone of the same sex
  5. kissing someone of the other sex
  6. dancing naked in a public place
  7. getting a large, readily visible tattoo
  8. cooking an elaborate meal
  9. killing an ill person
  10. cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
  11. digging up a daffodil bed
  12. cheating at cards
  13. adopting a foster child
  14. running for president
  15. burning down a church
  16. adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
  17. complimenting another’s performance
  18. rewriting a will
  19. keeping a dead body unburied for six months
  20. hiking in the woods
The list could go on and on. In your writing, know your characters’ motives, as well as what other characters think the motives are. How will you reveal all that to your reader? Give sensory info!

I’d love to read your responses to today’s prompt. Did something surprising come out of the challenge? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Psychology for Writers

psychology for writers

Roundup of Psychology for Writers series

Do You Have a Beautiful Bod or What? couple in snow

The Cold Facts About Sex 

Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words 

Animal Writes 

Considering Creativity 

When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves: Psychology & Folk Wisdom 

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge? Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Frangible Characters

Toxic People Are Great

Writers Need Toxic Relationships 

Two Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing 

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest"Stop procrastinating. Start writing." Writers and procrastination.

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters 

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters 

Want to be published? Join Sisters in Crime at the Libbie Mill Library on Saturday, February 27, 2016, for “Paths to Getting Published–Mystery Authors Tell Their Tales.” A book signing and celebration of the publication of Virginia is for Mysteries II will follow.

Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II celebration on February 27th at Libbie Mill Library