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Why We Love Surprises: The Psychology Of Plot Twists

A woman opens a box that's filled with other, increasingly smaller boxes. Inside the smallest box, there's a key.

Writers and filmmakers hoping to hoodwink their fans with plot twists have long known what cognitive scientists know: All of us have blind spots in the way we assess the world. We get distracted. We forget how we know things. We see patterns that aren't there. Because these blind spots are wired into the brain, they act in ways that are predictable — so predictable that storytellers from Sophocles to M. Night Shyamalan have used them to lead us astray.

In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask, can stories serve as a kind of brain scan? If a plot twist works by exploiting our biases and mental shortcuts, can observing the mechanics of a good story reveal something important about the contours of the mind?

"Stories are a kind of magic trick," says cognitive scientist Vera Tobin. "When we dissect them, we can discover very, very reliable aspects of those tricks that turn out to be important clues about the way that people think."

A few of the storyteller's favorite biases:

  • The Curse of Knowledge: The mother of all blind spots, this is the tendency to assume that others know what you know.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to seek information that confirms what you already believe.
  • Anchoring: The tendency to lean too heavily on the first piece of information you hear, failing to correct it as you learn new data.
  • Availability Bias: The tendency to believe that things that spring readily to mind are more plausible than things that spring less readily to mind.
  • Hindsight Bias: The tendency to see an event as predictable, once it has already unfolded. We experience hindsight bias when we look back and say, "I knew it all along."
  • More Reading:

    "Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot," by Vera Tobin

    "Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise," by Vera Tobin in Language and Literature

    "The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning About False Beliefs," by Susan A.J. Birch and Paul Bloom in Psychological Science

    "Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research," by Stephen L. Macknik, Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson, and Susana Martinez-Conde in Nature Reviews Neuroscience

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.