Sunday, July 24, 2016

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

Dr. Vivian Lawry
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.

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.



S one group
S one group (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.

(LINK to Vivian's blog article - alcohol and character development)

(LINK to ThrillWriters' article - math formula of drunkenness)

Fiona - 
So there's a lot that can go on - lots of different ways we could route our character either toward the good angels or to the lowest common denominator. Is a character aware that she is acting out of character in the moment? If yes, what kinds of self-talk might they experience?

Vivian -
Sometimes there is conscious self-talk, especially if it is something one doesn't ordinarily do, such as taking drugs. One might think, "It can't be that dangerous, all my friends are doing it. Will they think I'm a wimp if I don't? Will they still be my friends?"

Self-talk is less likely in a riot, or emergency situation with adrenaline mixed in. People are just generally less thoughtful.

Perhaps we should give a nod to the power of individual action here. Although people are unlikely to break from the group, when someone does, it's often empowers others. For example, if someone is urging gang rape and one man speaks out forcefully, refusing to participate or even take stronger action, others are likely to follow the rebel. It's difficult to be a minority of one, but having someone to rally around makes it easier.

Fiona - 
You were talking about an adrenalized episode where actions outstripped thought process. Now, we move to the next scene where the character is reviewing their actions OR are confronted with their actions. What types of internal gymnastics might go on?

Vivian -
The first is likely to be, "Hey, everyone was doing it." Another common justification is blaming the victim, who was asking for it, deserved it, etc.


Somewhere in here, we should mention that sometimes the presence of others inhibits undesirable behavior, such as theft, spousal abuse, etc.

Fiona - 
What question should I have asked you so we have a better understanding of the subject?


Vivian - 
It just remains for the author to decide how her character behaves vis a vis others AND WHY. Almost any behavior is believable if the justification is clear to the reader.


Fiona - 
THIS article on OODA loops might help you to walk your reader through the internal/external event so everyone walks out the other side of your passage on the same foot.

You can see how Vivian uses her background in psychology and group dynamics in her short stories.


DIFFERENT DRUMMER: A Collection of Off-beat Fiction. Thanks! 








Thank you so much for your insights, Vivian. ThrillWriters, if you want to stay in touch with Vivian you an reach her on her 

website, and you can follow her on Facebook.

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you 

helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.