Primitive Narratives


Primitive Narratives

Below, there is a link to a cute 10 second cartoon based upon research done by psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in 1944.


[It will open up in your browser...] 

Triangle & Circle 
Triangle & Circle


Aggressor, Victim and Rescuer


Notice how your mind automatically makes the leap to turn the cartoon into a narrative story about an aggressor and a victim.  


In fact, the slightly more complex narrative of aggressor, victim and rescuer is one of our most ingrained narratives. In a litigation, guess what role the jurors see themselves playing?


Notice how your mind wants to fill in the dots for the following narrative--


After spending the day exploring beautiful sites in the crowded streets of New York city, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.  


Psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out that when asked to "retell" this simple narrative to others, people often will insert the word "pickpocket," which never appeared in the original, into the retelling of the story.


Primitive Psychology and Prejudicial Bias 


Some psychologists refer to primitive psychological "defenses" (or to frame them in a more positive light, "fundamental skills") to explain this construct of heroes and villains.   


The most primitive skills include: (1) "splitting" the world into good and bad; (2) "projecting" the bad onto others; and (3) "denying" the bad could be located within the self.  I remember a satirical singing group that had a song called, "'It's not me, it's you," which captures the gist of it.    


This primitive structure underlies the complexity we layer upon it.  If we pay attention to ourselves, we will notice that most of what we say in personal narrative is constructed around how we want to be perceived. And when we give advice to others, we are usually just reinforcing something we would like to attribute to ourselves. We are blind to our continual creation of our 'this is me, this is not me' identity in which we cast ourselves as the hero, victim or rescuer.   


The unconscious psychology of jurors may have "me or not-me" rejections to the casting of the defendant as asaggressor and/or plaintiff as victim depending upon how the jurors cast themselves.  Jurors may dis-identify with and blame the victim for putting herself in the situation of being victimized (e.g. psychiatrist provides in office sex "therapy" for adult patient), or identify with and let the defendant off the hook (e.g. parent's financial responsibility for teenager's car accident). 


Probably, the most intense widespread prejudice I have seen over the years is the jurors' lack of empathy and compassion for overweight people. I remember a case in which an overweight woman with the right of way in an uncontrolled intersection was T-boned by a young soldier. Several mock jurors agreed that, "He was young and in shape, but she was overweight and probably couldn't turn her head to see that he was coming. It was her fault."


 It is important to pay attention to the primitive aggressor, victim and rescuer framework in every litigation and remember that there may be several narratives competing for the moral high ground.