I divide toxic people into two groups. The first, are outright nasty little trolls spewing hate, criticism, and hurtful comments at anyone they get in their sights. The second are the more passive commentators. They stir the negativity slowly with their “meaningful” insights and with their behind the shadows back-stabbing. Neither are worth the time or effort of argument, however, a recent study did confirm something of value that I had always assumed…toxic people tend to be “losers” in the literal sense.
A group of psychologists studied hundreds of player interactions in the popular on-line video game, Call of Duty. If you’re not familiar with the Xbox title here’s a quick primer. In all its incarnations it is basically a war game where each participant is a solider playing on a team. The on-line play allows the participants to talk to one another and it was these conversations that the psychologists studied.
Now as you can imagine, putting a bunch of strangers together in a competitive killing environment, the language and commentary gets pretty colorful. Hidden behind avatars, in the comfort of one’s home, many players lose their filters…and their civility. What is most interesting, however, about the Call of Duty franchise is that it has quickly become a favorite of female gamers. (I can attest that my wife and daughter log more hours on it than I do).
The gender balance, the random sampling of players, the anonymity, and the competitive play makes Call of Duty an excellent arena for social psychology research. Here is what the researchers discovered:
Male players who did worse than their male counterparts tended to make substantially more verbal attacks and most often attacked female players with derogatory and/or sexist comments.
In short, guys who were losers among their gender group were toxic and sexist… I know, I’m not surprised either. It is interesting, however, to have a bit of evidence that points to the source of sexist behavior. Men who attempt to display superiority over women, most likely feel weak among their peers. So sexism is at least, in part, a matter of transference.
The advance of social media has opened a new world of communication. In the negative sense, people are much less civil when they can “troll” from behind the keyboard, but the anonymity isn’t creating the behaviors, it’s simply revealing them. Studies like the Call of Duty research lend more understanding to these toxic communicators.
We know that their behavior is “fear-based.” The person yelling, screaming, spouting out derogatory attacks, and generally being nasty is a fearful little animal, making big noises from his or her dark cave. And men who claim superiority over women …likely have no power or authority among other men.
As a marketing executive I spend a lot of time choosing the “best” words and phrases. As a criminologist I’ve spent years examining people’s word choices to unveil intent, deception, and motivation, and as a writer I use all of those experiences to create story characters. All three of “me” loves social media. It provides endless study of human behavior and endless story ideas.
As an investigator I used a technique called “content analysis.” It is based on the premise that, in writing, people find it difficult to lie. That may seem at odds with what we believe about social media…as it appears there are plenty of liars. However, the science of content analysis deals with the subconscious apprehension to lying. The person may attempt to deceive, but their word choice and word omissions reveal the truth.
It works in this way—something has occurred that you may have been a part of—say the theft of money. I ask you to “write” down what you did during the day of the event. I also ask you to answer a series of questions. Based on your story and answers, and through the use of content analysis, I then locate all the little “places” you are omitting, avoiding, or slightly “bending.” For example, when someone writes: “I went home and then later on…” you can be pretty certain they made a mental leap that left out some of the stuff in between getting “home” and the things they talk about after “later on.” And that is the place my investigation begins.
Whether you are aware of it or not…we don’t pick our words accidentally. It’s much like reading body language. Sometimes a person answers “yes” while shaking their head “no.” This is a bit more nuanced than the classic Freudian Slip. It is a series of small hints such as an omission of pronouns, a change in verb tense, or a shift from using a loved one’s name to using the common noun.
It’s why I love even the craziest of social media word wars. I can tell a lot about the participants by not only what they say, but how they say it…the words they use and the words they avoid. For me, this is all great fodder for creating story characters. Like Steinbeck, I believe the foundation for every character our stories need exists in the psychology of actual humans and that social media outlets provide thousands of profiles to use, combine, and enhance without ever a need to risk penning a two-dimensional cliché called John or Jane Doe.
My point is our antagonist doesn’t have to be the standard Dick Dastardly. He can easily be a portrait derived from the Good Reads blow-hard, or that man-hating woman who won’t shut up about her ex, or that sociopath who thinks six-syllable words win the debate.
So our Call of Duty study provides an excellent portrait of a sexist story character. This guy wouldn’t be happy, successful, and confident. Those aren’t the real psychological markings of a sexist. The character who degrades women and thinks they are little more than a set of boobs, he’d be losing somewhere in life. He’d be a guy living with some fear of inadequacy. He’d be a guy overcompensating for some personal weakness that fills him with guilt.
As writers, I believe that is our real job. Plot is important, but defining the psychology of what drives our characters is the real work we do. Nothing so obvious as clichés, but characters that reflect the good and the bad that we see in the everyday world.
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