B.F. Skinner, the father of Behavioral Psychology wrote, “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” Skinner saw the mind as a “black box.” He had little concern with the internal workings as he believed most function is a series of Stimulus and Response. In the years that have followed through his work and the work in the many fields of psychology we have gained a greater understanding and perhaps an acceptance that in some situations every psychological school of study is correct to some degree. That the X-ray of behavior shows a complex but simple pattern of choice-decision-reaction processes.
For the writer and specifically the horror writer the human response is a critical element of the work. How would a person respond in a situation? The problem is, regardless of the science, readers often have differing opinions and those opinions can impact whether or not he or she finds the reactions believable. The underlying issue is an understanding of human behavior. People have many notions of “what they or others would do” in a situation. In extreme situations most of those notions are incorrect.
We know from volumes of studies that although each human may seem or believe themselves to be unique, our reactions are very similar to one another. That is, in a particular situation, the majority of people will react in the same manner – that is, they are predictable. And one of the strongest influences on our behavior is the use of social validation—what are those around us doing?
There is a vast difference between what we report we would do in a crisis than what we will actually do. There are exceptions but for the most part people fall into one of three immediate responses: Flight, Fight or Freeze. Often the first response of Flight is not to flee a situation but to run towards it. For example, if asked, “What would you do if jets began crashing into buildings and you were on the street?” Most people would provide a rational response—“I would get the hell out of there.” But we know from the 9-11 tragedy, when that exact thing happened, most people stood frozen and many ran “toward” the buildings. The same is true in Active Shooter situations. When the gunshots begin some people flee, most people freeze and some people run toward the gunfire.
The process at work is best described by a quote used in military training—“in a crisis we don’t rise to our potential, we fall back to our training.” The problem with a crisis, whether in the real world or the horror fiction type, is most of us have little training or experience with extreme events. You can’t really train for a zombie apocalypse. “Frozen” will be the most probable outcome.
We freeze in place because the brain relies on two primary processing functions when dealing with a unique situation. The first is to search the memory for a similar pattern to determine the previous response. In the absence of anything “similar” the brain looks for social cues. In other words, what is everyone else doing. More times than not, everyone else is also looking for similar experience in their memories and looking to others for cues. The result is—people standing around like everything is “normal” when the rational response would be to run.
As a person, with a lot of education, reading and research devoted to psychology I am very aware of “what” human reactions will be in many situations. In the extreme situations, I can make a fairly accurate educated guess. As a writer, I am also aware of the fallacies of behavior readers hold to be true. The “if that happened I would…” Sometimes I am criticized for character “reactions” to situations. Everything from, “Why did they stand around” to “I don’t believe that’s what people would think.”
It’s a difficult decision to pick from the three options. Do I tell it the way the reader believes “people would react?” Do I tell it the way readers would like the characters to react? Or do I tell it the way psychology proves people do react? Fortunately I write fiction. That means that in my stories I have the liberty to do all three.
Categories: A to Z Blog Challenge