Can Cognitive Biases Help Me With Character Motivations?


One of the challenges of writing a story is that the protagonist needs to be dumb enough to get into trouble, but smart enough to get out of trouble. It occurred to me that cognitive biases could provide easier explanations for a character’s bad choices. Characters need to make bad decisions in order for there to be a story, but they can’t make a bad decision just for the sake of the story.

I originally became interested in cognitive biases because I saw them as an explanation for why “those people” acted so dumb. Later, I realized that I am often suffer from the same biases in my thinking. When I came across a few articles on cognitive bias recently, it struck me that I could use them in my writing.

What is a cognitive bias?

There are several explanations for why we have cognitive biases. My impression is that most reflect thinking shortcuts or the limitations in our brains. They can lead to what appears to be irrational behaviour.

Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases includes about 170 different biases.

Some examples:

  • Confirmation bias is when people tend to accept information that supports their current view, and reject information that does not support their view.
  • Anchoring is where people place more emphasis on their initial impressions than on later, often better quality, information.
  • Self-serving bias is where people interpret information in ways that make them look better.
  • Money illusion  is where people focus on the face value of money rather than its purchasing power.

One thing to keep in mind is that these biases are tendencies, and people can learn to set them aside when they actively want to avoid bias in their thinking. There is some evidence that cognitive biases may vary from one culture to another.

More information on cognitive biases can be found on the links below.

“Day of the Jackal”

When I started to think about cognitive bias as an explanation of character behaviour, I remembered the book and movie “Day of the Jackal”. In the first part of the story, the Jackal is portrayed as a very rational contract killer. He tells the people that hired him that as a professional he would call off the assassination if his own life was in danger. Later in the story, when he learns that the police are aware of his plan, he decides to go ahead. This comes across as an irrational choice, especially given his earlier statement.

The book implies that his desire for the money drives him to his decision. However, his choice can also be explained in terms of cognitive biases.

Since he has been successful in all his previous jobs, he is subject to the overconfidence effect. He downplays the likelihood of failure and the overestimates the chances of success. His past experience may also give him an illusory superiority bias, where he over estimates his own ability and underestimates the ability of the police.

The explanation given in the book, that the desire for money drives his decision, is an example of optimism bias, or wishful thinking. He thinks that because he wants the money that he will get it.

“The Barrier”


Cognitive biases can explain some of the behaviour of characters in my movie. Some decisions by the character Brandon Baker can be seen as examples of cognitive bias.

Brandon had done a study of the barrier himself some ten years earlier and decided it wasn’t needed. Brandon rejection of Arthur’s proposal could be an example of anchoring. He gives more weight to his own work years earlier than on both Ling’s and Arthur’s later work.

At the end, when it appears that the barrier was, in fact, needed, Brandon claims that he felt that way all along. This is a clear case of self serving bias. Outcome bias may also be a factor. Because of the way things turn out, it seems that the barrier was needed. The outcome may not invalidate his original rejection of the proposal. In the movie I didn’t address this possibility.

What I see as one of the weak points of the story is the behaviour of the developer, Vincent Campbell. Too much of what he does seems to be for the sake of the plot. I think I can use cognitive biases to craft him into a more believable character. As I think over his role, I can see examples of superiority bias, confirmation bias, and the false consensus effect. I think that if I take a more detailed look at Campbell’s behaviour I can find ways to explain the behaviour or alter it to make it reflect a cognitive bias.

Can I Use Cognitive Bias?

Time will tell, but I’m confident that I can use cognitive biases in creating my characters. Of course that could be the overconfidence effect at work.

More Information on Cognitive Biases

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