Things people think

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a wryly humorous summary of models of humanity that floats around in academia. It appears in various forms; the one below has an astute punch line that highlights the amount of implicit assumption in the early models.

Models of humankind:

  • Man the fallen creation (the Bible)
  • Man the thinker (the Enlightenment)
  • Heroic man (Nietzsche)
  • Economic man (Marx)
  • Man the rat (Skinner)
  • Man the woman (feminism)

It’s humorous, but it cuts to the heart of the matter. The models that shape our lives – political models, religious models, economic models – are based on underlying assumptions about how people think and what people want. As is often the case with models, these assumptions are often demonstrably wrong.

In this article, I’ll examine some common assumptions, and I’ll discuss some other ways of thinking about what people are really like.

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Images from Wikipedia and Wikimedia; details at the end of this article

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Shock, horror, jokes and Necker cubes: Why humour is funny and scary things are scary

By Gordon Rugg

Complex things often have simple causes. Here’s a classic example. It’s a fractal.

julia set detail

(From wikimedia)

Fractal images are so complex that there’s an entire area of mathematics specialising in them. However, the complex fractal image above comes from a single, simple equation.

Humour and sudden shocks are also complex, since they both depend on substantial knowledge about the world and about human behaviour, but, like fractals, the key to them comes from a very simple underlying mechanism. Here’s what it looks like. It’s called the Necker cube.

necker cube red

So what’s the Necker cube, and how is it involved with such emotive areas as humour and horror?

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Schema theory, scripts, and mental templates: An introduction

By Gordon Rugg

Why should anyone care about schema theory? Well, among other things, it’s at the heart of how society functions, and if you make good use of it, you can become rich, famous and socially successful. That’s a persuasive pair of reasons. This article describes the core concepts in schema theory, discusses some examples of how it gives powerful insights, and relates it to various concepts that complement it.

First, some background. Schema theory was introduced in the 1930s by Sir Fred Bartlett. It’s pronounced like “schemer” which is a frequent cause of confusion if people first encounter the term by hearing it rather than reading it. The core idea is that a schema is a sort of mental template that describes the key features of something. For instance, the schema for a typical car includes having four wheels, a chassis, a body, doors, seats and a steering wheel.

There’s a closely related approach known as script theory. Scripts in this context are a sub-type of schema that describe the key features of an activity – a verb as opposed to a noun. For instance, the script for a pre-arranged dinner at a French-style restaurant includes the actions of booking a table, arriving at the agreed time, being greeted by a member of staff, being shown to your table, etc. We’ll be covering script theory in a later article.

So far, this may sound tidy but not particularly powerful or interesting. When you dig deeper, though, schema theory and script theory turn out to have a lot of uses and implications that aren’t as widely known as they should be. These take us into fields as varied as designing game-changing new products, the law, and measuring novelty in film scripts, as well as the eternal question of why the general public appears collectively unable to have consistent, clear ideas about what it wants. First, we’ll work through the basic concepts.

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