Using Human Nature and the Rule of Three

Fire hydrant in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
Who knew these were lethal: Fire hydrant in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nila’s post on a kerfuffle over a scathing video review is a reminder that we’re all human. In fact, it’s our human foibles that make the best hooks for stories because it is easy to see ourselves in the failings of others. In the case of the two ill-behaved authors, neither should have acted the way they did but help me if I can’t see myself in both of them.

So, for the post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s some musings on human nature and the way our brains work.

Hours of careful research watching fail videos with my son have left me with a number of insights. One, of course, is never let your child ride anything wheeled without a helmet, nor try any stunt without a cup. But better for the writer, never underestimate a young male’s thirst for glory. It may manifest in the 21st century as really stupid parkour attempts but it has to go back to before humans could speak. Glory-seeking is a proven motivation for young heroes, especially if a woman is watching. The popularity of these videos is also a testament to the enduring appeal of schadenfreude, although in our defense, my son and I prefer the silly ones to the ones where someone gets hurt.

Parkour-pivot (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Stickman doesn’t have any breakable bones. And where’s his helmet!

There are a few other tidbits to be gleaned from these videos. Do you know that infants and very young toddlers go stiff when they fall? It must be an evolutionary advantage, I’m guessing because it makes it easier for a parent to catch a slipping child. I vaguely recall that from my own sons’ infant days: it’s easier to catch a board than a pile of jelly, not that I ever dropped my child.

Today, while in Old Navy, I had the chance to coach my son on the finer points of life, another tradition dating back to pre-humanity (most mammals train their offspring in someway, from a lioness teaching a cub to hunt, to a mare nudging a colt into the herd.) Of course, these days, it’s not so much about where to find prey or how to make a fire but more important things like, “Son, when your girlfriend or wife is shopping, make her carry the stuff she wants to buy. That way, the shopping trip will end sooner.” My wife stuck her tongue out at me but I was simply furthering an ancient father-son tradition, really, it was more of a duty than anything else.

Something even older than mammals: organic brains are wonderful pattern-matchers. Even pre-brain ganglia do this to some extent as they desensitize to repeated stimulus. A simple fish will learn the signs of when food is around. Any animal will stay away from something that makes it sick. The first grazer by the water hole probably swiftly learned to watch out for those floating logs that might be a crocodile.

Pattern-matching, may, in fact, be the primary purpose of brains beyond the basic control of body, feeding, reproduction, etc. Every mammal learns the basic patterns related to season, time of day, and various warning signs. I remember a mouse trap experience: I bought a fancy electronic one, supposedly a swift kill. I didn’t mind the mice myself so much but when one surprised my wife in the bathroom at night, they had to go. So I smeared peanut butter, as recommended, as the bait and zap: caught one the first night. Never caught one after that. I bet it’s because the mouse voided some “this place is bad” scent as it died and the trap no longer smelled good to other mice, despite the peanut butter.

Fast forward to humans and marvel at the patterns we find. Many are real. Grumpy lady at the DMV counter? Tread carefully because she can and will make your life miserable. A bunch of young men drinking from paper bags on a street corner after dark? Maybe there’s a better way to get to where I’m going. With our mammalian brains, we are excellent at gleaning patterns, even if we don’t realize what we’re doing. With our human intellect, we are outstanding at it. Of course, this can get us into trouble.

One place is stereotypes. As someone who recognizes the pattern-matchers in our heads, I’m not actually hostile to stereotypes. They can sometimes be useful. Of course, in contemporary life, they can be also be troublesome. They can even be immoral if a stereotypes keeps someone from doing something they are well suited to do. But we all make use of them. They are a natural response of our organic brain to the available stimulus so no point pretending they don’t exist. Acknowledging them can help you bypass your evolutionary wiring and do the right thing, when necessary.

As a writer, stereotypes are a mixed blessing. If your reader shares the same stereotypes, which they often do, you can make use of them to shorten a character sketch. Some stereotypes are likely to be accepted without much issue, such as a little girl playing with a doll, but many cause a negative reaction in your reader, sometimes enough to lose them. Even the doll example might lose some readers, although hopefully fewer in this post-feminist age. It’s a gray line because one person’s stereotype is another person’s archetype. In the end, better to steer clear of them or at least be conscious of how you are using them.

Another aspect of our pattern matching is superstition. I’m not personally superstitious, except when it comes to D&D dice:  hey, I need some excuse to have so many dice because I really don’t need a pound of them for any other reason.  Even so, I don’t really begrudge the superstitious because that’s what you get when you give a mammalian brain the awesome computing power of a human brain. Especially when you look to superstition in the medieval or ancient world, it’s my opinion that for most people, it made some sense of a crazy world.

A well-educated Roman might (and did, we have many of their writings), scoff at the superstitious but for most in that day, raised on only stories and what they could observe with their eyes, it was easy to attribute misfortune, disease, war, famine, etc., to the violation of some arcane ritual or the ill-will of a displeased god.

For one, they had few valid data points to extrapolate on. Saw two different people run over by a cart while wearing a striped shirt? Maybe I just won’t wear striped shirts anymore. I warn my children of the peril. Generations later, there may be a prohibition against wearing striped shirts, for reasons unknown. (In the Imperial period there were many customs, even ritual phrases, whose meanings were lost in the mists of time.)

Those who study how people react to bad news, do so in part to understand our fascination with gruesome events. We’re fascinated by things like the following, even though the odds of it happening to you are miniscule:

Humberto Hernandez, a 24-year-old Oakland, California resident, was killed after being struck in the face by an airborne fire hydrant while walking. A passing car had struck the fire hydrant and the water pressure shot the hydrant at Hernandez with enough force to kill him.

(Wikipedia has an article for everything! More disturbing is how many of the stories I already knew because of my own fascination with bizarre deaths.)

Once upon a time, our ancestors lived as hunter-gathers in small groups. Even with annual gatherings of larger groups, they might have only known of 2000 people in their entire lifetime. If something bad happens to 1 in 2000 people, it isn’t that unreasonable to worry that it might happen to you. If it happens to in 1 in 6 billion people, maybe you really shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Great advice but our brains are wired to worry about anything we hear about. Good for hunter-gathers, bad for media-connected 21st century humans.

It’s like the move to soft baseballs. I can see the reason for it as a parent but as an engineer, I can’t help but note that probably more kids die in car accidents on the way to baseball games than actually die from a hard baseball to the chest. Still, we do it because it’s all about control: we can’t control the car accidents (or maybe fool ourselves that we can, since we are the driver) but we can control the baseball, so we do.

Back to superstitions: they allow(ed) people to feel they had some control over what otherwise seemed a chaotic world. Superstition is just another way of organizing and categorizing the world, another way to allow a human to predict outcomes. If I don’t wear a striped shirt, a wagon won’t run me over.

It’s not so different in our age. If our infant’s binkie falls on the floor, we clean it. Of course, we know there are actually microbes that might make them sick, but how do we know this? Did we culture the floor and examine it under the microscope? No, unless you happen to be a microbiologist, you know this because someone told you, in person, through a book, a documentary, whatever. So, in the end, like the advice to not wear a striped shirt, it is just something we learned from others. We may have more convincing reasons behind it but this idea of questioning received wisdom is something rather recent, and for most of human history, perhaps not really a good trait. Maybe the advice to not wear a striped shirt is not too valuable but the advice to not swim in a waterhole that herd animals are avoiding might be really good advice. Chomp, says the crocodile.

As to those dropped binkies? For the first few months with the first baby, they get washed in the dishwasher on the anti-bacterial cycle. By the second child, he’s lucky if it gets wiped off before it’s stuck back in his month. Bad parenting you say? Not at all: it’s more pattern matching. You see, by the second child, we parents have observed all the things our children put in their mouths and they didn’t get sick! So, we skip the binkie sterilization. What’s the point? He puts everything else on the floor in his mouth. Hey, he even licks the floor.

This makes me recall a friend’s tale of his toddler coming from the backyard with half a slug in her hand.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I fished the rest out of her mouth.”

“Why? It wasn’t going to hurt her.”

“Yeah but it was really gross.”

True. One of the perils of life in the northwest. Here’s another and it’s a pattern I learned from only a single incident, and one you can benefit from without having to suffer it yourself: when walking on decking at night or early morning in Oregon, wear shoes. Smushing a fat slug between your toes is really no fun at all.

Back to writing, there are many ways to make use of your readers’ pattern matching but one of the most powerful is the rule of the three. Myself, I love it both as a reader and a writer. It’s basically, two events set a pattern, a third incident (that violates it) breaks it. It’s a wonderful tool from D&D games to books to movies because humans pick up on the pattern without even realizing it, which means they develop a visceral expectation of what comes next. So when you break the pattern, they are surprised and entranced at a core level.

What crazy patterns have you observed among your fellows, or your own behavior? Do you make use of patterns in your own writing?

7 thoughts on “Using Human Nature and the Rule of Three

  1. I think the problem with stereotypes in stories is they’re too often all we see, especially for members of groups that are underrepresented in that type of fiction. I personally didn’t care much for dolls as a girl (and when I did play with dolls, they were acting out adventure stories my friends and I made up, not playing house or being mothered). We can quibble about how much of this is genetic, hormonal or enculturation, but in fact, not all girls like dolls, shoes, clothes, shopping etc. and not all men like sports, beer swilling and belching. When I see a girl in a story playing with a doll, I’m not offended (and I am a feminist, as are most modern women whether they know it or not), but if there are very few female characters in a story, or if all the female characters fit all the feminine stereotypes (and especially if the pov in the story is a male who finds women and their behavior maddening or baffling, as if they were alien creatures rather than fellow humans), I may not like or relate to the story.

    Historically, certain groups of people have been under represented in most stories. So when a character from one of those underrepresented demographics is included, but they fit a stereotype, people will tend to notice it more. Think of a cop show where the only black characters are criminals, and most of the criminals are black. People who object to this is not saying there are no black criminals in the world. They’re just saying that they’d like to see more diversity in how black men (and criminals) are portrayed.

    We all fall somewhere along a distribution of traits for out age, race, gender, culture, species. Few, if any of us are perfectly average for every trait. The variation within a group is typically greater than the average difference between the two groups. A story with well drawn characters should reflect this.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I agree stereotypes are dangerous in general, and need to be used with care, if used at all. They are good as far as they go, which at best is an accurate tendency of some group, as a whole, to act or respond or be in a certain way. Even today, odds are that if someone under age 5 is playing with dolls, it is probably a girl. But that’s not to say some boys won’t play with dolls or all girls will, as you point out. And some stereotypes have little basis. Even those that have some basis are not guides to individual behavior.

    I guess to me, they are a manifestation of our tendency to look for patterns. I try not to act on any stereotypes but if I do and it is fairly harmless if I get it wrong, I don’t worry about it too much. If it is harmful, like assuming a girl won’t like engineering, that’s something else. I wouldn’t buy a girl a doll just because she’s a girl but I might ask her parents if she might like one for her birthday when I wouldn’t ask a boy’s parents. (Although more likely I would just find a game or craft thing.)

    Regarding distributions, I think that is a healthy way to look at it. Most of the time, the differences in the mean aren’t that significant but not always. But even when there is a large difference (like male-female differences in Meyers-Briggs Intuitive-Sensing but not the other pairs), is it right to pre-judge an individual by their likely place on the distribution? Not at all.

    As for what to do with them in stories, they are problematic for various reason (for one, it’s generally considered sloppy characterization) but they can be pernicious if they further stale or unfair stereotypes so your point is well taken.

    Anyway, I don’t advocate using them but some of them might be fairly subtle and unconsciously used by many writers, myself included. It can be powerful to consciously turn them around but even there, in some genres the counter stereotype is itself a bit cliche.

    1. Like the kick-ass teenage girl, you mean? (The fumbling wizard would have been, once upon a time, counter-stereotype, too. But that ship has sailed.)

      This is an interesting point, because characters that act a bit unpredictably are often the most fascinating. It can go too far, or feel too contrived, but if it comes from a deeper tension within the character or an inconsistency or character flaw, then it’s both believable and fascinating. Better yet, it might reflect a larger tension in the story world.

      And then there are just people who make you shake your head and smile. “There he goes again.” I don’t let enough of those into my stories.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

      1. Thanks! Yeah, kick-ass teenage girl is a head shaker for me. I do like strong female characters but I don’t like them over the top or with unreasonable martial prowess. But playing counter to stereotypes can be fun to an extent. As I mentioned, I’m doing it in my current project but I’m trying to do it in a way that doesn’t rely on the stereotype. It’s more of (I hope!) if you assume someone who looks like this will be a Dumbledore, you may be more surprised, but if not, he is (hopefully) still an interesting character.

  3. My personal “pattern check” is that people often accuse others of being what we actually are. For example, men say that women are too emotional, and women say men are too unemotional. My observation is that men, in fact, become emotional much more quickly than women. They’re wired for action, if you will. Women wait longer before committing because the consequence (raising children/family) falls much more heavily on us.

    This pattern of hypocritical blaming plays out in all sorts of ways, particularly in politics, where you may have a person legislating the morality of others while secretly sending around photos of their… um, “bulge.” Or the wealthy class demanding that poor people pay a fair share of taxes, while they themselves make use of every tax shelter and loop hole. Or, to be fair, unions proclaiming that corporations shouldn’t dump money into politics while they themselves fund political actions.

    So if you’re struggling to rise above stereotypes, consider giving your character one of these hypocritical blind spots.

    1. Excellent observation and quite true in my experience as well, from the teenager who tells someone to grow up, to the 50s CEO 🙂

      Thanks for the comment and the idea!

    2. Your comment reminds me of Tremors, a cute movie I’ve always enjoyed. While it does play to some stereotypes (like the gun crazed survivalists), it also consciously plays against others:

      -there’s the scientist, who is a young woman and doesn’t, for a change, know everything about the monster no one has ever seen before. (In older movies of this sort, the scientist is usually an old guy who seems to know way too much)

      -there’s Chang, the wise Asian shopkeeper, who you expect to hang around offering wisdom but gets eaten early on

      -Bacon’s character even get’s the love interest’s pants off, but only because they are snagged in barbed wire and the monster is trying to eat them

      First time I saw it, I enjoyed all the counter-stereotypes and counter-tropes they went after.

      I’m trying to do that in my current project with a superficially Gandalf-esque character who isn’t very Gandalf like in the end. (I get tired of the old, bearded guy always being wise and altruistic in the end 🙂 ) I’m wondering how it will work. I describe him physically like Gandalf but I have him early on acting not so Gandalf like- he isn’t overtly bad but he is a spymaster in the end and manipulative. So far in early reads, he seems to be working but not sure how he will play out in the long run.

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