Writing, Conflict, and Confirmation Bias

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February 21, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue

thinking-conf-biasI was thinking recently about some of my favorite books and why those books were so much better than others and I realized that in many cases the authors have nailed the art of infusing confirmation bias into their characters.

What is Confirmation Bias?

“Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.” – Wikipedia

While the phrase “confirmation bias” is typically applied to sociopolitical debates, it is applicable many more places and I believe is a great tool for increasing conflict and tension in writing.

For example, take One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. In this novel, Kesey strives to point out that once a person has been labeled as Crazy, then that person’s actions are interpreted by others as confirming their craziness and, worse, drawing reactive responses more severe than what they would be for a “sane” person.

In the case of this book, confirmation bias drives the plot, tension, and conflict of the book. The focus here is specifically on how labeling people creates filters that we view other people through that may cause us to misinterpret their actions and misunderstand them.

The same theory can be used in many other character interactions to create real tension and conflict between characters. To take a clichéd example from romance, consider the plot where the playboy finally loses his heart to a woman who wants nothing to do with him because he’s a playboy. The author can drag the sexual tension out for-frickin-ever because anything sweet or romantic the guy tries to do to prove himself to the girl only confirms her belief that he’s just desperate to have her as a conquest.

How writers use Confirmation Bias to create conflict and tension

Continuing with the Playboy-Wants-To-Settle-down example, I can also say I’ve seen instances where the author failed to make the tension believable. You know it’s not working when you’re rolling your eyes at the female lead’s continued resistance to his charms and wanting to pull your hair out because she’s clearly just an idiot. So, where did the author go wrong?

When confirmation bias falls flat in a novel, it’s usually because of at least one of two things:

1. The CBC (Confirmation Biased Character) isn’t biased enough.

In other words, if we’re going to make a CBC we need to make sure their thoughts, dialogue, and actions all reflect their bias. We can use the biased filters through which the character views the world to ensure that, at that moment, the reader is viewing it the exact same way. If we give the reader any hint that there could be an alternative way to interpret a situation, our CBC’s opinions lose credibility fast and then we’ve lost the reader.

In the case of the Playboy-Wants-To-Settle-down example, I can’t tell you how many romance novels I’ve read where the author kills the sexual tension very early by having the woman start to wonder if maybe, just maybe he could be serious this time. I’ve seen authors do it in the first couple of chapters and it makes me want to scream,  “No! Just no, you killed a prime source of tension waayyyy too early!” The minute a character has the thought that is counter to their confirmation bias is a turning point in a novel and should be carefully planned.

And yes, the concept applies outside of romance. Consider that what the woman in our example is ultimately struggling with is if she can really trust the man with her heart. It’s about trust which is a key component in any relationship. So you could apply the same principle to, say, a Police Chief who really wants to trust one of his detectives but the detective has been a bit off since his last partner was killed. Now every time the detective makes a call the Police Chief would not have, the Police Chief believes it’s because the detective is emotionally compromised and may not accept any evidence or reasoning to support the decision the detective made.

2. The author fails to provide things for CBC to misinterpret.

If we’re going to use a CBC to provide conflict and tension, we need to make the most of it. This means we have to throw a scene in where the OCB (Object of Confirmation Bias) does something that is going to look really, really bad to the CBC when they view it through their bias-colored glasses.

To up the stakes, we can throw this scene in right at the point where the CBC is starting to doubt their initial impressions of the OBC so that all forward progress is lost and sends the CBC reeling emotionally. If we do it right, our readers will be reeling too, and isn’t that the goal?

If we’re feeling really wicked, we can then have the CBC react to this event by doing something rash or retaliatory which only adds more conflict and may even cause the OBC to begin doubting the CBC because their trust was breached.

free-MrBurnsExcellent

I’m sure there’s even more that could be done with confirmation bias for those of you with particularly devious minds. I’d encourage everyone to research further into the psychology of Confirmation Bias to stock your writing toolkit with some really heavy-hitting conflict creation techniques.

Suggested Reading:

Confirmation Bias on Wikipedia

Confirmation Bias on You are Not So Smart

Confirmation Bias on The Skeptic’s Dictionary

The 12 Cognitive Biases that Prevent You from Being Rational on io9

Next up: Leveraging the Primacy Effect!

Got any great examples of how writers use confirmation bias to drive conflict and tension? Share below!

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9 thoughts on “Writing, Conflict, and Confirmation Bias

  1. symplysilent says:

    Thank you so much for this. Your post is timely. I am creating a new character, Sergio. Among his faults is frivolity, and he is often dismissed as a flake. The very situation you are describing applies to how I might treat him. Thank you, Silent

  2. Excellent post, Kiralyn. I agree that many a romance novel has been compromised by the CBC not sticking to their bias long enough. I think people struggle with showing a hint that a character could change versus showing them changing too early on in the plot.

    • Definitely, although I don’t think romance is the only affected genre. I’ve noticed that most books who have mountains of reviewers complaining about idiotic heroes or heroines constantly doing stupid stuff generally lack confirmation bias. Basically, the authors give too much information and don’t make it clear that the choice made was the ONLY one to be made from the character’s point of view.

      We have to really sell our character’s choices and that means writing the decision strictly through that character’s biases and not letting extraneous information seep in that will make the reader question decisions.

  3. Thanks for confirming my theory on this. Ha ha. 🙂

  4. Erica Dakin says:

    I love your posts, they’re always so scientific!

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