Halloween Digested by Science


I read this E printed article from Time Magazine.  I thought it was interesting.  As a writer, it gives me insight into human behavior that is valuable in developing new characters.

What Trick-or-Treating Teaches Us About Human Nature

Oct. 28, 2015

A look back at the social scientists who have been doing studies involving trick-or-treaters throughout the years

This Halloween, children who trick or treat at a Yale economist’s house in New Haven, Connecticut, will be asked some questions back before they get their loot.

First, they will be randomly assigned to go to a section of Dean Karlan’s front porch — either the section with a photo of First Lady Michelle Obama, the section with a photo of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, or the section with no photo (that’s the control). Half the kids in the Clinton and Obama areas will be asked if they know who the women are. The kids will also be asked whether they’d prefer fruit or candy.

The professor wants to see if the visual cue of Michelle Obama will lead more children to choose fruit over candy. That’s what happened when he did the experiment in 2012, and if it happens again, that may suggest the First Lady’s health campaigns have really been ingrained in kids’ heads.

Karlan isn’t the first social scientist to design an experiment around trick-or-treaters. In fact, there were a few studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the ’70s and ’80s, at a time when social psychologists were eager to get out of the lab and examine behavior of the broader public, says retired psychology professor Arthur Beaman. Another bonus: it was different from lab studies done with college students, where said students always know they’re part of a study, says Edward Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the University of Utah, who worked with Beaman on a number of papers.

The annual tradition of using kids as research subjects has seen a renewed interest of late, and the particular appeal is that these real-life examples can contribute interesting insights into human behavior. Of course, based on any one study, you wouldn’t say a theory of human nature is supported or not supported, says Bonnie Klentz, Professor of Psychology at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. But observing trick-or-treaters in their element does provide some unique benefits.

The anonymity—or self-perceived anonymity—of trick-or-treaters can make for some particularly interesting research. Scott Fraser, professor of neurophysiology teaching at the University of California-Los Angeles, realized that made them ripe for testing one of the conditions of “deindividuation theory,” the idea that behavior is dictated by context—and something like anonymity can make people less inhibited.

In the early ’70s, Fraser, Beaman and Diener designed a study involving more than 1,300 kids in the greater Seattle area on Halloween night. When the kids were told they may only take one candy, and then left them alone in the room, the kids who remained totally anonymous — meaning they weren’t asked their names — took the most candy, while the kids who were asked their names took the least.

“If you want to control behavior, you need to make people identifiable,” Fraser concludes, noting this kind of thinking explains why surveillance cameras can influence behavior. Most of these “thieves” only took an extra piece or two, but a few took many more. (Diener says jokingly: “I wonder what those kids are doing now?”)

In another experiment, kids encountered either a candy bowl with a mirror behind it or a candy bowl without a mirror. They were told they could take one treat. Researchers stood behind a sheet decorated with drawings of witches and ghosts and they spied on the children through the little peepholes. “When the mirror was present, fewer kids took extra candy,” Klentz says. “Kids who were 9 and older were more influenced by mirror than younger kids.” This suggests “it’s at a certain age when kids are able to reflect back and see themselves as an outsider would see them,” says Klentz.

Researchers have also shown that the notion of “free”—as in free Halloween candy—can lead to some irrational decision-making. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, gave trick-or-treaters a few Hershey’s Kisses and asked them whether they would rather give him one Hershey’s Kiss to get a small Snickers bar, or two for a big Snickers. Most gave him the two for the bigger one. But when asked if they would rather have the small Snickers bar for free or the big one for one Hershey’s Kiss, most kids went for the free deal, even though it was less candy. The experiment is just an example of the “kinds of mistakes we do in the name of free,” which will make us “do irrational things, like drive a longer distance just to get gasoline” when people should really think about free as just another number, says Ariely, who describes this experiment in his 2008 book Predictably Irrational.

Indeed, much of the research on trick or treaters highlights things we already know about human behavior: “When our attention is focused on us, we tend to behave in more socially appropriate ways,” Klentz says.



Shut Up Less Is More

The average full-length novel is somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 words.  If the story gets much over the 100,000-word mark, the author should reevaluate it. That does not mean that there are not great stories out there at that length.  The Divergent story turned into a movie word count is slightly over 100,000 words. The Twilight novel is well over 110,000 words.

My second book “The Five Hundred” is at slightly over 84,000 words.  I am in re-write mode and I would like to trim out about 3,000 to 4,000 words.  That being said as the author it is harder than you would think.  The old trick while rewriting is reminding myself not to talk or, in other words,  I need to be careful not to write descriptive paragraphs which will not move the story along.

Being so close to the story line as the author makes it nearly impossible to see the dead spots.  At times, a lull in the story is needed if I have the reader moving at a fast past through the story.  I call it “catching your breath.”  A slower pace is also where I can set up the next part of the story.  Commonly I will write a small description of the surroundings,  like describing a thunderstorm as my actors gear up for the next scene.

My mentor Lary Crews taught me to be careful using a lot of boring descriptions. Instead of describing, “a thunderous clap of thunder shook Rover out of a dead sleep.  He leaped off of his pillow and started to shake and whimper.”  It is a better idea to have the actor interact with the scene, “ Rover, come here boy, it’s okay I’ll scratch your ear,”  just as a second clap of thunder rattled the crystal chandelier.

As an author constantly thinking about not speaking in my story but let my actors speak is a fine line between what makes my story a page-turner, and not a dry dissertation.  When I am trapped in babbling is where the story gets too long, so I constantly tell myself,  “shut up, remember, less is more.”

Do Not Pay Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

Some of you might remember that line that I am paraphrasing from the movie, “The Wizard Of Oz.”  I remember watching it when I was three years old with one eye peering around the corner from behind the living room chair.   The mean witch and the drama of Dorthy and her companions trying to reach their individual goals. The perils at every turn on the path to the grand City of Oz. There was hope in OZ.

It took great courage to stand in front of the Great Oz.  The Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scare Crow huddled in fright but not Dorthy.  No, she stood up and made her case.  The simplicity and fear at that moment were dispelled by Toto who pulled the curtain back and the Great Oz was revealed.

That fearful Oz became an old white haired man manipulating everyone with his big persona and even larger demanding voice.  He simply was a man who controlled a city. A small dog exposed the whole ruse.

I find this an interesting concept in my writing.  I as an author must tell my story in the same way.  There has to be an overwhelming problem that needs to be solved. The reader must feel the hopelessness, the danger of traveling on the Yellow Brick Road.  Finally,  it is exposed by a turn of events like Toto pulling the curtain back. What a relief that was to me to see a man there.  I the frightened child no longer shook with fear from behind that chair.  We must sell the impossible story line and in a way expose the simple truth at the end.  So the next time you read a great novel remember, “Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Struggling To Breathe

Life is a battle. We all know that. There are good days and then there are some not so good days. That is what makes up life. Understanding and accepting those days is what makes us human. Then the question is, what about our characters? What must they go through in telling their story?

I love developing my characters. I do a lot of research into their lives. I write complete biographies on each primary and secondary character. I find a picture of a person on Google image that represents my character and I paste it into the biography. I do an entire physiological profile on them. What makes them tick? In one antagonist case about Bo McConnell I wrote, “Bo was raised in an unstable household where the protective father figure and/or the nurturing mother figure was undependable and incompetent. Perhaps he was raised by a single parent who made a lot of mistakes, causing trouble and embarrassment for him as a child. He aligned himself with the rules to contain his anxiety. Through all this turmoil, he found relationships with others helped give his life stability, but no one was the perfect surrogate.

The next step is easier, where were they born and what are their parents names? How many brothers and sisters are there? I drill down another level and start in on several paragraphs of what they like and do not like. I want to know that Jenna has a fear of flying or that Bo hates rootbeer.

Most of that development is never introduced in the story, but it breathes life into a character. I once had a mentor and teacher in one of my writing courses tell me giving birth to a character makes us God-like. We create from a blank page a real person and we tell their story.

Even though our stories show the average ups and downs of our characters they must go through extraordinary situations, we would never face. The story needs them to face doubt, tribulation, the uncertainty they may not be able to get through. For me, there must be an ending that again makes them human. A simple hug or kiss, a smile or maybe a good cry.  Other times it may be a cold beer in celebration or a simple dinner sitting on the patio eating French fries and an outstretched hand to a loved one with nothing being said.

How Important Is Music To A Writer’s Career?

Writing is an art form that requires hundred’s of hours of background work. It starts with developing your main characters, both the protagonists, and antagonists.  Once my core characters are born, I start fleshing out a rough story line.

I have a general idea where I am going. The one thing I never know is how it is going to end. On my second novel, “The Five Hundred”.  I struggled for three months working on the last chapter.  I wrote it several times and then in a few days I deleted it.  I could not find the closing for the long journey that Tony Woods and Jenna Kessler lived through.

I remember one particular day I turned on our IPod with my favorite music.  I listened to several songs in the background as I wrote the last chapter again.  Tommy James and the Shondells song, “Crimson and Clover.” started playing.  I actually listened to it. I set the IPod on replay.  That song at that moment sparked a deeper emotion in me.  Honestly, I have no idea how many times in a row I listened to that song.  My guess would be for at least two hours.  Then it came, the answer I had struggled with for the last chapter.

My fingers flew over the keyboard.  The words rolled out of my brain faster than I could type.  I feared I might lose them in the seconds it took to write them.  Over and Over “Crimson and Clover” played.  I typed the last two sentences and hit the final period to the story.  I stood up and I celebrated jumping up and down, fist pumps I flopped down into my chair and I reread the last paragraph.  I cupped my hands over my face and Tommy James and I cried.

The ending was so unpretentious and elegant.  I could not believe it.  I knew it was exactly what it should be. The horrible journey my characters had to endure, their internal struggles dealing with so much pain. Their own self-examination ended with the simple conversation.

So is music important to a writer?  It is for me.  It opened up emotions to a song that I probably heard thousands of times in my life.  This day, this one day that song finished my second novel.