Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The curse of knowledge

How we outsmart ourselves through a look at films with plot twists.

Warning: If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, spoilers lie ahead.

When we view a film, read a book, or assess a situation, our perception is filtered by a perspective cultivated by a lifetime of experiences which ultimately results in blind spots. We unconsciously detect patterns. We focus on the wrong element. We predictably overlook tell-tale signs. Unconscious affective triggering often goes unnoticed until, for instance, we face a plot twist, at which time previous hints and clues are processed through our conscious thought and memory and… a revelation strikes! Of course, ##### is Luke Skywalker’s father! I knew that!… or… ##### is Keyser Soze! It all makes sense now!

Vera Tobin, a cognitive scientist, says that “Stories are a kind of magic trick. 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.” So, plot twists exploit our biases and mental shortcuts. We’ll first look at some feature films that expertly wield plot twists and then parallel-path to a brief look at the implications of our newfound insight on everyday life.

Modern, classic, and obscure alike, storytellers from Yann Martel, Gillian Flynn, and Liane Moriarty to George Lucas, Laeta Kalogridis, and M. Night Shyamalan have played on our “cognitive biases, mental shortcuts, and quirks of memory” to produce New York Times Bestsellers and Hollywood Blockbusters. These biases include The Curse of Knowledge (i.e. assuming others know what we know), Confirmation Bias (i.e. seeking information that confirms our beliefs), Highsight Bias (i.e. tendency to see an event as predictable once it has occurred), Availability Bias (i.e. assuming the more familiar an idea, the more plausible it is), and Anchoring (i.e. relying too heavily on the first piece of information received) to name a few.

In The Usual Suspects, the police are looking for the enigmatic criminal, Keyser Soze. “Verbal” Kint, a limping small-time crook played by Kevin Spacey, narrates the film as he is interviewed by the feds. He is attempting to convince them that the near-mythical criminal not only exists but was the master-mind behind a multimillion dollar heist gone wrong (involving Verbal and four associates). In the end, the viewer realizes that “Verbal” is crafting a story to buy himself time and, maybe later, that she/ he had become immersed in the narrative, silencing their awareness and intuitions.

As “Verbal” leaves the police station after delivering his tale, his limp becomes a stride and the following monologue plays out, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, he’s gone,” at which point the police detective receives fax of an artistic
rendering of Soze (undoubtedly “Verbal”), connects the dots, and rushes out of the office but it is too late. “Verbal”/ Soze has driven off in a cab that looks like every other in a city such as LA or NYC.

In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe, a psychologist played by Bruce Willis, is working with Cole Sear, a troubled child, who eventually confesses the following, “I see dead people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” In the first scene of the film, Malcolm is shot by a former patient and then the camera cuts to a shot of the psychologist walking down the street. We are never told that he survived, but we unconsciously leap to a conclusion and assume he has recovered. Later in the movie, Malcolm is sitting across from Cole’s mother as if they have just finished a contentious rehashing of Cole’s progress. Never does the mother look at Malcolm, she in no way acknowledges him but this doesn’t seem significant until we realize (or are shown) that Malcolm was killed by the psychotic patient. This scene doesn’t register as unusual because we skip to conclusions, we overlook that the psychologist is operating under his internal logic, seeing what he wants to see. At other times, we forget that Cole is seeing things that others can’t see and knows things that other characters don’t. The Curse of Knowledge, Framing Effect, Anchoring, and a black bag of other biases have been used against you in the name of entertainment.

So how does this affect our everyday lives? Scientists jump to conclusions, the food industry exploits unconscious visual processing… We make thousands of decisions every day that are influenced, and often tainted, by our environment, experiences, and emotions. For instance, imagine you are sitting by a public pool. Maybe this part is just me, but you are thinking about the host of parasites and bacteria floating around (and often into) the grinning swimmers. Meanwhile, you hold a Pepsi in one hand and an ice cream sandwich in the other. It is natural to dwell on the obvious and rely on easily remembered knowledge, but, in this situation, the long-term risks associated with consuming highly-processed sugar-laden foods far outweigh the risks associated with taking the plunge. As another example, when we hear of someone seeking out evidence to support their preconceptions “flat-earthers” and “independent citizens” may spring to mind, but take a moment to reflect on your study and research habits. Do you follow independent news sources? Are you conscious of whether your reading or viewing material is “unbiased,” “objective,” “non-partisan,” “solutions-oriented?” Did you acknowledge a counter-argument in your last research paper? As one last display of hindsight bias, let’s consider a classic psychology experiment. College students were polled before and after the confirmation of a U.S. Supreme Court justice as to whether or not the nominee would be confirmed. The initial poll revealed 58% of the students thought the nominee would be confirmed while after the confirmation, 78% of students said they believed the nominee would be confirmed. When we know the resolution of something, in hindsight it seems more likely that that outcome was inevitable.

As a community, we can now recognize the genius of storytellers that enables them to engineer plot twists that genuinely surprise us without appearing cheap or gimmicky while also recognizing the role of cognitive biases (the tools that enable storytellers to entrance us) in our own lives. Some final advice… The next time the answer may be right under your feet, take a moment to step back and look around. Before you try to barter for something, have a “fair” market price in mind; you don’t always have to work down from the seller’s initial offer (i.e. anchoring).

This article was made possible by the thought-provoking research and analyses of Vera Tobin.

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