Thursday 13 October 2011

Telling lies to get at the truth?

I was invited recently to participate in “A Study of Online Communication" at Adelaide University. A PhD Candidate at their School of Psychology needed volunteers to participate in an online group exercise examining knowledge of and participation in Social Networking. The subject interests me, I had the time, so I volunteered.

I turned up and was seated at a computer with a program which led me through several processes. I was told I was being randomly paired with another participant. That was a lie. Each of us was paired against the computer. 

I was told that we each had to complete a series of tests, and, if my pair and I both scored 85% or better, we would be rewarded with $20. That was a lie also; there was no $20. The tests included tasks which were deliberately unsolvable; it was impossible to score 85% or better. 

The computer announced our scores: I had achieved 82% (a fail) and my "pair" supposedly achieved 92%. 

Next I was instructed to write a short note to the other participant, expressing how I felt about their performance, and they would do the same for me. I wrote: "Well done." The computer sent me a long waffly note which included an expression of forgiveness, something I found mystifying. I wasn't there to win $20 for myself or anyone else. I had no contract with anyone to win them $20. I had done my best under impossible circumstances. I had done nothing wrong. In short, I didn't warrant or require forgiveness.

Then I was presented with a series of questions about how I felt about myself and this imaginary other person. Once completed, I was ushered from the room and informed that the entire process was a lie. The study had nothing to do with social networking. It was an examination of how I "behaved following expressions of forgiveness or unforgiveness." 

As I walked away afterwards, I reflected that PhD candidates at Adelaide University School of Psychology had employment potential in a number of areas. They could easily adapt to a career as a politician, an ambulance-chasing lawyer, a used-car salesman, a Nigerian e-mail writer, or a Pentecostal minister; any career, in fact, where delicately-phrased "truth" is employed to help the medicine go down. 

By a curious coincidence, the book I had taken with me to read while waiting was Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade, by William Froug, the writer/producer of many classic TV shows. The section I had been reading said this:
Page one, line one, should tell the reader in unmistakable terms the genre of your movie. Is it a comedy? A mystery? A melodrama? A tragi-comedy? A flat-out drama? Make sure you tell your reader what they are in for on page one.
Bob Altman, director of the movie M*A*S*H, told me that at the preview screening of this movie, the audience sat in stony silence for the first twenty minutes of the film. Reacting to the opening shot of helicopters coming into the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital grounds loaded down with bloodied, badly wounded soldiers, members of the audience told themselves, It's a war movie, it's serious–laughter would be an inappropriate response. So, in spite of the movie's comedic elements, nobody laughed. They felt uncomfortable.
Altman solved the problem by adding a song, Suicide is Painless, written by his son. This helped communicate the intention of the movie and it went on to become massively successful.

Screenwriters have to tell their audience the truth. Truth in setting, truth in character, truth in dialogue. Audiences quickly work out if we're faking it, and they tend to be unforgiving, something local researchers into forgiveness don't appear to understand.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting. I agree that the tone must be set, however, I also think that some nuance is necessary or the writer risks cliche. Just my opinion.

Kathy said...

It seems to be the fashion these days for psychological experiments to be done with hidden motivations and tested with questionnaires. I find a lot of the 'results' to be highly debatable. I thoroughly sympathise with you over a frustrating experience, it's fascinating to see you immediately apply it to screenwriting.
I remember watching M*A*S*H and thinking how serious it all was. When people in the audience laughed, I was shocked. The song didn't register at all.