Instinct in Fiction – Why Does it Work?

Many protagonists are guided by instinct where their reason fails. Is this applicable to real life? If so, how?

A personal essay

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Jens Johnson via Pexels

We’ve seen it in many different forms: listen to your heart, trust your gut, do what feels right. Often, it’s just lazy storytelling: the writers can’t think of a more creative, logical way out, so they default to the power of human emotion to guide their protagonists. Other times, it’s meant to reflect our social values: do things for the love of it instead of for the money, do what makes you happy and not necessarily what makes you successful, etc.

But can we really trust out instincts? Most people either give an immediate “no” or an immediate” yes.” The latter often believe the supernatural will guide them, which I personally don’t believe. But I also don’t agree with always saying “no” to instinct, even though I’m not superstitious. Why is that? What other reason is there to trust your gut?

The aim of this article is not to be one of those anti-pessimistic articles where I use logic to combat some of the pessimistic–and not realistic–ideas that’ve become entrenched in our culture. No, this article is an analysis of the way my own mind seems to work, how it’s reflected in my writing, and examples of this in other media.

I’m a discovery writer, which means that I don’t plan many details of my writing ahead of time. This normally improves the feel and flow of the final product, and a round of editing takes out any mistakes. But one thing I find myself writing a lot is about a protagonist being guided by his or her instinct. Not logic, just the gut.

Now, as the person doing the writing, in this instance I know for a fact that
a) I am not trying to reinforce our American values of heart over mind
b) I am not trying to be lazy and weasel out of a problem
It’s just something that worms its way into my writing a lot.

I began to notice the same sensation popping up in real life, as well. Often, I would feel that something was off. But instead of just accepting that the occurrence was wrong or distasteful, I dug deeper. I asked myself, “Now so-and-so said something that sounds logical, but it doesn’t quite feel right. Why is that?” This normally ends in one of two ways. Either I find the end of the tunnel and realize that the occurrence felt wrong because it reminded me of something else negative, and nothing was really wrong, OR I end up realizing the main flaw that was making me uneasy.

Take for example, if someone near me says the statement, “Men are naturally promiscuous because their best evolutionary strategy is to mate with as many people as possible.” That doesn’t sit well with me. Here’s the thing: most people who hear me say “that doesn’t seem right” will just say “it goes against what you’ve been taught, and you’re a girl, which is why the statement makes you feel bad.” The only way to find out if that’s true or not is to dig deeper. Why does the statement bother me? This can go one of two ways, just like all the others. I might dig deeper and find that, indeed, I am offended for no other reason than that I am a woman and am opposed to sexual stereotypes. Or, and this turned out to be the real case, I focus on the problem long enough to remember why the statement is incorrect. There are actually 3 facts proving the promiscuity statement to be no more than a cultural stereotype, which I’ll detail below if you’re curious. Otherwise, the example finished, you can skip the bulleted list to get back to the main essay:

1. In behavioral evolution, you learn that different species have different sexual strategies. Generally, males are promiscuous, quantity over quality. But species with more promiscuity are often marked by lots of sexual dimorphism, aka making males and females look different, which humans don’t have much of. This is because the more fickle the males, the choosier the females, causing males to compete for females, leading to long antlers or thick manes. For more on that, here’s a MinuteEarth video.
2. Anthropology classes cover many cultures that are not our own, and in these other cultures you will often see the exact opposite stereotype associated with male behavior. So if “men = promiscuous” IS a natural rule,
3. Many people will point to other mammals and say “THOSE males are promiscuous, so we must be, too,” only to forget that humans are related to chimps, not to lions. So if you’re going to compare human behavior based on the animal kingdom, judge it based on chimp behavior. Ah, but wait! There are two types of chimp that we’re equally related to: Bonobos and the Common Chimpanzee, whose sexual practices are as different as day and night. So no, you can’t look to deer or even gorillas to explain OUR behavior.

That example lead me to realize that the statement was incorrect, only I’d forgotten why initially. Just as often, I’ll be lead in the other direction, and find out that something only feels wrong for no real reason. This normally happens whenever I get promoted: my firs instinct is that something has gone horribly wrong. Normally after digging, I find that I was only afraid of not having enough time to take on extra work. Once I find out this fact, I’m free to push aside my qualms and move on.

This often arises in books and movies when a character has forgotten something but can’t quite recall what. Because of this on-the-tip-of-the-tongue, this leads the main character to feel that something is off. “Why is it that something didn’t seem right when Jerry said his daughter was sick? Wait, Jerry doesn’t have a daughter!” or something of the like.

But how can we know that something is off or wrong if we, by definition, have forgotten the basis of our judgement?

Well, our subconscious.

That’s the main point of this essay. Our intuition is controlled by our subconscious, the automatic background thoughts that help you perceive the world. This started off as just a philosophical idea for me, but it turns out to actually be correct: your subconscious can discern patterns much faster than you can consciously (Myers). I remember reading an article, years ago, about a set of test subjects who had to try to figure out a card trick of some sort. I only remember that they had to pick from one of two piles of cards to try to get some reward. While monitoring their brain patterns, the psychologists found that the subconscious would start indicating toward the correct pile long before the conscious mind came to the conclusion that it was the correct one.

This pattern recognition, as Myers points out, often goes too far and affects our initial impressions of things in the wrong way: judging a poorly-dressed person in an interview, jumping to conclusions too quickly, etc.

But at the same time, it’s there, for better or for worse. Intuition is our subconscious mind alerting us that something is up long before our logical side perceives it. That’s likely where you get all these stories about someone just knowing something and turning out to be right: they’ve likely seen small indicators of the truth but didn’t consciously processing them, subliminally processing instead of logically.

How does this play into storytelling, science aside? Your instinct, intuition, “heart,” whatever you want to call it, is ingrained with deep knowledge of your own values and patterns in the world around you. A character “feeling” that something is off IS something that can happen in real life, if the person’s subconscious is picking up on facial expressions or other things out of place before they fully realize it.

I wonder if “listening to your heart” is also the same consequence? Is that just your instinct telling you, trying to remind you, about some of your core values and beliefs, or something you’ve forgotten?

And then, how much of that can be falsely influenced by other things? Someone filling a store with the smell of freshly-baked bread to make you feel unconscious happy? Your sex hormones making you cut a bad person some slack because you have a crush on them?

It’s likely that none of these questions are cut and dry, and vary from situation to situation. But it’s still important not to fully dismiss your instinct. It was evolutionary developed to help you, and it very often does. If something doesn’t feel right, dig deeper to find out if you’re just prejudiced or if your subliminal buddy is onto something.

And maybe when you see a character in a book or movie going with their gut, cut them some slack.


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