Cognitive Biases–How they affect your writing

PortraitThis post is by Craig Snider.

When we write, we are attempting to capture the essence of some part of the human experience. Even when our characters are animals, they serve to highlight some aspect of human nature that is brought out in relief against an animal existence. To do so, it requires the writer to have a strong grasp on psychology, both of other people, and of themselves. Writers must always be examining people, their motivations, their fears, their desires, and anything and everything that will shed light on why people behave the way they do, to ensure their writing is as accurate to real life as possible.

In that way, writers are amateur psychologists and anthropologists, mining the human mind for the ethos, pathos, and logos that determine behavior. One of those aspects of human psychology a writer must consider is our innate cognitive biases.

Wikipedia says, “Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioral economics.” And there are many biases we can fall victim too, each responsible for causing our cognitive processes to become hijacked. Let’s look at a few that your characters, and even you as a writer, may experience.

Bandwagon Effect (groupthink, herd behavior): We have all experienced this one at some point, most likely in middle or high school. Often, we can refer to it as “peer pressure,” but this is a bit different. It isn’t where someone is directly pressuring you to change your bsrsulrcaaasurhmind, but you do so willingly because others around you are act or think in a certain way. And, it is a powerful effect. Don’t think that just because someone is a lone wolf, deeply independent, and always swimming against the crowd that they can’t be subject to such an effect.

The likelihood of this effect increases proportionally to the gravity of the situation being considered, in addition to the person’s psychological makeup. For example, a character may not start dressing a certain way just because everyone else is doing so. But, they may be inclined to toss a few insults of their own at the kid being bullied by a large crowd. Or, they may internally change their opinion about something if they are in a large group of people who all believe a contrary opinion to be true.

We often see this effect in post-apocalyptic tales, horror stories, and political rallies. Just keep it in mind when writing, and weigh your character’s realistic psychology against the pull of the group-mind.

Omission Bias: This is the tendency to change the valuation of an action that results in harm as being more immoral than an inaction that results in equally harmful results.

In other words, is it worse to stand aside and let someone die, or is it worse to kill them? 10foot-articlelargeThat gets into difficult ethical dilemmas like the Trolley Problem. But, from a writing standpoint, this will likely affect your characters and what decisions they choose to make. The more you know your characters (and yourself), the more you’ll be able to tell which action they should make based on their character, rather than the one you want them to make.

False Consensus Effect: This is a social bias where people tend to overestimate the extent to which other people in society will agree with them, either on politics, religion, or any other topics, but typically the larger issues. For example, you may have a conversation thread going about gun control. Everyone will typically fall into a couple of groups on the topic. Those on each side of the argument will feel that everyone on their side is in a consensus, not only on gun control, but on everything else as well.

8430Never more than on social media is this one evident. How many times have you seen someone post something demonizing the other side, calling them stupid, or just be otherwise in disbelief they could have this opposing opinion? It results in rampant polarization, and causes us to form “Us vs Them” groups, regardless of whether or not those groups are striated with differing opinions on other topics.

This can work well in literature, especially character-driven, or literary stories, where the depth and subtlety of the characters’ interactions can be greatly influenced by such a bias, making the resulting betrayal all the more effective.

There are many more biases we must be aware of, not only so that we may make our characters actions, beliefs, and opinions more believable, but so that we as writers don’t unintentionally let our own biases shape our writing, sometimes leading us to preach in our writing rather than presenting the best story possible.

Until next time, write on.



17 thoughts on “Cognitive Biases–How they affect your writing

  1. Great post, Craig. It is hard to separate personal bias from my character bias sometimes, but my experience in psychiatry helps with that I believe. My curiosity re what makes someone “tick” helps me to be able to write about actions of someone else even if I don’t believe in them. I believe I accomplished that in one of my short stories as my long-time friends who read it looked at me as if I’d grown two heads.


    1. Thanks Neva. That is definitely a great background to have for a writer!

      I think the hardest thing for a writer to do is to write characters so different from themselves in a way that feels genuine and true to life. For me, writing women is difficult. I tend to just make them more feminine versions of men, but the decisions and thought processes are different than what a real woman would do.

      That is also the fun part, putting ourselves into shoes we have never occupied. I love that.


  2. Bias comes into play in so many pieces of our lives. As both a fiction and non-fiction writer, bias is probably the thing I confront the most in my writing. Being aware does allow me to choose when and where it may be appropriate. Thank you for starting the discussion. Doris


    1. It is very easy for our own personal beliefs to enter into our writing, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we don’t want them to make characters do something they normally wouldn’t, and we want to KNOW that we are injecting our beliefs. We certainly wouldn’t want it to happen without us knowing it.



  3. I do sometimes stop and ask myself “Why WOULD he do that?” and have to rationalise if it actually is the direction the story should go in, or not. Pondering over it can, as you point out, show if I’m bringing my own opinions to bear on the matter. Especially when writing ancient historical work as I do, we have no written background to refer to on what might have been their psychological reaction to situations according to what their formative ‘belief’ system, or ‘peer pressure’ was. What you name as False Consensus effect may have been what Julius Caesar simply called ‘Barbarianism’. All who had not been subsumed into the ideology of the Roman Empire and who lay beyond the Empire’s pale/boundary were barbarians in thought and in deed, according to him.


    1. Trying to write about characters from different time-period would be very difficult! It is so hard to tell what someone would do in the context of that time period.

      Certainly, the same biases that create the False Consensus effect are at work when we demonize those who do not have similar belief and value systems. We assume they are inferior, despite the fact they may have very complicated reasons for having different beliefs.

      Thanks for reading.


  4. Neat post. Mentioning ethos, pathos, and logos takes me back to the days when I taught AP English Language and Composition. We spent a ton of time discussing them.


  5. Intriguing post, Craig. I’ve done character sketches where I give my character’s a childhood where they form their personalities. I’ve tried to incorporate some biases based on incidents in their lives before the story begins. Then, as I write, I try to put myself in their shoes, and make sure their behaviors are congruent with their personalities and beliefs.


    1. Absolutely, Mike. The more you know your characters, the more you as an author will know what their decision will be. But, also don’t forget that people will often behave contrary to their character due to psychological factors that are beyond their experiences and conscious motivations. That’s where the cognitive and social biases come in. But, as with coincidence, in literature it is best to limit these.



  6. Enjoyed the post Craig. If used correctly while writing, bias can be a useful tool. It helps the writer sort things out while looking at the big picture, thus making the story more rounded and appealing to a wider range of people. We just have to be careful not to skew the character one way or another!


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