Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

The Vengeful Animal

November 3, 2007

anger3.jpgAristotle wrote that man is “the only animal that laughs.” I think man is also the only animal with a thirst for revenge.

I got to thinking about this while reading Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of how humans created civilization—beginning with the domestication of plants and animals at the end of the last glacial period (12,000 years ago).

In one passage about how centralized authorities arise as populations increase, Diamond writes, “Each murder in band and tribal societies usually leads to an attempted revenge killing, starting one more unending cycle of murder and countermurder…” Apparently, you just can’t put more than 200 people together in a group without a police force, or they will all kill each other!

What other animal has this problem? For example, could you imagine dogs acting like that? Dogs can definitely love. And if you kill a dog’s loved one, he will mourn. But will his grief drive him to kill to get even? I don’t think so.

I am used to thinking of revenge as a primitive impulse. It is uncivilized, right? We are supposed to suppress it. It is scary to think that this revenge trait is not some reptile-brain thing that our intelligence helps us to suppress. On the contrary, revenge is unique to our advanced brains. And, ironically, it is one of the factors that promoted our “civilization” in the first place.

Whether we got this vengeful trait through evolution or whether it was designed into us by God, I can’t help feeling that it was a mistake. Wouldn’t we be better off without it? Oh well, at least we got the sense of humor to go with it.

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The Future is Light and Short

December 7, 2006

Many writers have pointed out (e.g. Crooked Timber, Daniel Read et al, and the Wall Street Journal) that when we have to choose what movie to watch days ahead of time (as with Netflix), we tend to make more ambitious choices than what we want when the time comes to watch. For example, many people select a bunch of “highbrow” movies on Netflix, then don’t feel like watching them when they arrive.

Netflix is a great bonanza for highbrow movies today, but what will happen when people have access to a library the size of Netflix, but no longer have to make choices days ahead of time?

Brad Templeton wrote a great piece about this, predicting:

…the real shift coming is to pay-per-view and downloading. If people look at the PPV menu and usually pick the light movie over the serious one, then the market for the serious ones is sunk.

Sadly, I think he is right. But neither good nor bad is his other interesting observation:

I’ve also noticed a push for shorter programming… When you just sit down to choose something from your library, the temptation is strong to watch shorter things instead of making a 2 hour committment to a longer thing.

The data sample is small, but my experience is definitely similar. I now have a pile of a few dozen DVDs acquired through Peerflix. Picking a movie at my house means straining my eyes to find the “running time” in tiny print on every disc, and more often than not, choosing among the shortest.

This could be good news for independent filmmakers, because shorter means cheaper. But if this small sample is predicting correctly, even the big studios would be wise to take note.

Impro

October 30, 2006

In 2003, I was telling my friend Matthew Bernstein about my troubles creating a story for my upcoming video game. Matt gave me a copy of Impro by Keith Johnstone. He thought I would like it and it might help.

However, I was doubtful. I had taken Robert McKee’s Story seminar and had read McKee’s book. I had read a dozen books on screenwriting and story writing, and none of them had helped. Impro had an ugly cover, and it was about acting, so I postponed reading it for weeks.

When I finally picked it up in July, 2003, it instantly changed my life.

That might be an odd thing to say about an acting book, but I don’t care. And I am not the only one who says so. Several reviews on Amazon say the same thing.

Impro is ostensibly a book about acting—improvisation and mask work. However, it is also a great book—an important book—about creativity, about psychology, and about education. To me, it was a mind-blowing trip.

Mainly it was useful. Whereas McKee explained how to analyze a story (and tell a good one from a bad one), Johnstone explained how to create one. My Cecropia story team had been collectively banging its head against a wall for months. Johnstone’s ideas helped us blast through that wall and become a prolific, productive machine.

Impro was a huge help for my writing and directing. But the life-changing part was that it opened my eyes to the “status transactions” in every human interaction. Also, just as my children were entering the formal education system, Johnstone’s ideas about education stunned me. (Johnstone was an elementary school teacher before he was a playwright and director.) Here is a small exerpt:

“People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand…that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.”

After reading Impro, I was lucky enough to take one of Johnstone’s acting seminars. I sucked, and he was not quite as sympathetic to the talent-less as he claims to be in his book. However, his every word was gold.

If you are an actor, you should read this book. If you are a teacher, or thinking of becoming a teacher, you should read this book. But if you are a story writer or director, you really must read this book. Then thank me, as I thank Matt Bernstein. (Thank you, Matt!)