Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rogue Elephants

David Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who studies, among other things, conflict, aggression and revenge. He wrote a fascinating piece for the New York Times Op Ed page yesterday titled Washington's Rogue Elephants.

In his article, Barash talks about playing chicken, a classic game theory exercise in which two people drive their cars headlong at one another until one turns chicken and swerves away at the last instant. The winner is the one who didn't blink. The game works because at least one party plays by the rules, i.e., self-preservation is better than mutual destruction. The underlying assumption is that people are generally not crazy and that they will ultimately behave in a rational, predictable manner.

The game gets more interesting, and unpredictable, when one or both parties refuse to play by the rules by, for example, throwing the steering wheel out the window thereby ensuring that they cannot change course.

That's the rogue elephant, a term coined to refer to a male elephant in mating season that is in a state of must (heat). Driven crazy by his hormones, the elephant will go nuclear and all the other males know that they better let him have his way.

What to do when one party refuses to play by the rules, especially when the "crazy" party is willing to accept mutual destruction? Barash says that's when it's time for the other party to quit playing by the rules.

Barash couched his article in the context of the current debate in Washington on raising the debt limit but I think it applies equally well to writing fiction, particularly thriller fiction.

Characters that play by the rules are not nearly as compelling as those who refuse to do so. What villain is worth her salt if you aren't convinced she won't pull the trigger? How many times have you watched a TV crime drama play out and the bad guy drops the gun? No surprise in that. Hannibal Lector was so fascinating precisely because he violated one of the most basic rules of human civilization - Thou Shalt Not Eat Thy Neighbor!

The gate swings both ways. Good guys who break and bend the rules earn our admiration more easily than those who check all the boxes. Think Lee Child's protagonist, Jack Reacher. Here's a guy who roams the country with only the clothes on his back and a collapsing toothbrush in his back pocket. He'll do whatever it takes to whomever it needs to be done. Rules are for everyone else. Well, not all the rules. Doing the right thing is always Reacher's first rule. But the harder the way he does it, the better we like it.

So let's hear it for the Rogue Elephants we find between the pages. As for the ones in D.C. - not so much.

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