The Person and the Situation in Game of Thrones and Society
Applying situationism to Game of Thrones, or real life, is misguided.
Posted Aug 14, 2019
In Part 1 of this post, I discussed a common confusion about the fundamental attribution error, and considered why this might occur. More specifically, I critiqued an article by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones,” in which she confuses the fundamental attribution error (FAE) with a different phenomenon, the actor-observer asymmetry, in an attempt to promote her own theories through a misguided critique of the TV show. In this post, I present more specific criticisms of her article.
As I noted previously, proponents of the social psychological theory of situationism have tried to advance the FAE as a phenomenon that illustrates their dichotomous theories that behavior is really controlled by external situational factors rather than internal dispositional ones. Returning to Tufekci’s article, it seems that she has tried to apply a similar dichotomous theory to pop culture in her Game of Thrones article, in which she attempts to apply a situational vs. dispositional analysis first to the show and then to society at large. This irked me because it seemed to reflect an attempt to deny the importance of individuality in society, which has long been a theme of situationist discourse in social psychology.
Was Storytelling in Game of Thrones Sociological, Psychological, or a Mix of Both?
Tufekci’s article makes several claims she thinks explain why the eighth season of the show was unsatisfactory to many fans. She argues that the show switched from what she calls sociological storytelling to psychological storytelling. As she explains, the former involves “structural storytelling” in which “characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives, and norms that surround them.”
On the other hand, psychological storytelling (apparently the norm for most TV shows) focuses on “overly personal” stories about individuals and their distinctive personalities. She implies that this switch began with season eight because the show ran ahead of the George R.R. Martin novels, which focused on sociological stories, and the show’s producers did not understand how to continue doing sociological storytelling and switched to the more familiar psychological storytelling mode. (Actually, the show had completely run ahead of the books by the beginning of season six, but Tufekci’s article does not acknowledge this). Apparently, “the psychological/internal genre leaves us unable to understand and react to social change,” or so Tufekci says.
She claims that characters in sociological storytelling still “have personal stories and agency,” but “are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them,” and act according to incentives that “come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.” However, despite her assertion that characters have their own agency, she argues that a character’s choices are basically driven by situational factors and implies that individuality is not that important:
“The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances’ is a way into a broader, deeper understanding.”
Note that she says any character, no matter how depraved or shocking their behavior, which seems to imply that people and characters are basically interchangeable. If it were true that people make similar choices based only on circumstances, this would imply that a person’s values, desires, indeed their personality, are of no real importance.
Using some salient examples from the show, if viewers can put themselves in the place of any character and imagine themselves behaving the same way under the circumstances, this would mean that, on the one hand, they could see themselves being treacherous and opportunistic if they were in the place of someone like Petyr Baelish, yet also imagine that they would be honorable to a fault, even if it meant their own downfall, in the shoes of someone like Ned Stark.
This does not make any sense. The meaning of honor is that a person does not betray their friends when it happens to suit their incentives. In fact, it means making hard choices, even when it would be convenient to put personal interests first. Arguing that viewers can imagine that they would act willy-nilly depending on the whims of circumstances would mean that they lack a concept of having personal values that guide a character’s behavior.
Tufekci particularly criticizes how the show handled the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen, especially her murderous turn in episode seven. She argues that this began as a story of corruption by power, and if it had been done sociologically, it would have provided an interesting study of “a leader who starts in opposition with the best of intentions, … and ends up acting brutally and turning into a tyrant if they take power.”
Her argument is that Dany’s downfall was originally set up to illustrate how she became corrupted by external forces that provided her with ruinous incentives, “and season by season, we have witnessed her, however reluctantly, being shaped by the tools that were available to her and that she embraced: war, dragons, fire.” Then, unfortunately, her storyline in season eight went from an interesting sociological one to being ruined by this psychological storytelling1 the producers seem to favor.
It’s not my intention to defend season eight or the handling of Daenerys’ storyline. (People could argue about this for years to come.) What I want to point out instead is that the distinction that Tufekci makes between sociological and psychological story-telling rests on a false dichotomy and that she twists the facts to fit her theory.
Even a casual inspection of the plots from the early seasons illustrates that Dany showed striking psychological characteristics that foreshadowed exactly her later descent into genocide and tyranny, quite apart from any external sociological forces that may have shaped her decisions.
Consider an important scene from season two, episode three (Garden of Bones). (See the relevant clip here.)
Dany and her retinue are at the gates of the city of Qarth seeking admission. She states frankly that her people have no food and water, and will all die if not admitted. The person whom she needs to convince to let her in requests to see her dragons, as some of his colleagues doubt they even exist. Even though this is a simple and reasonable request that she could easily accommodate, she refuses and is denied admittance.
She then makes the following remarkable statement, that explicitly foreshadows what she will do in season eight: “When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!”
So, even though she is in a weak, vulnerable position, she refuses to use the only bargaining chip she has, and instead makes empty threats. Hence, even at this early stage, when her power is quite limited and her dragons are only babies, she demonstrates grandiosity, entitlement, and vindictiveness, even hints of madness.
Is this an example of sociological storytelling? What incentives exactly did Dany have to behave in such an irrational and potentially suicidal manner? How many viewers think they would act the same way under these circumstances? Despite Tufekci’s argument that Dany was gradually corrupted by external forces and incentives, her own peculiar personality is clearly an important factor in explaining her behavior, as she acts in a way that is clearly contrary to the “incentives” afforded by the situation. Additionally, there is plenty of evidence in the show that Daenerys was driven by desire for power from the get-go, long before she could be corrupted by bad incentives.
Tufekci’s argument about the supposed distinction between sociological and psychological storytelling, with the psychological mode being the dominant but misleading one, while the sociological mode tells the real story, mirrors the distinction made by situationists between situational and dispositional accounts of behavior.
Both Tufekci’s argument and the situationist argument misrepresent their subject matter and both present a lopsided view that denies the importance of human individuality. This is not to say that sociological factors are not important in good storytelling or in real life. An alternative to the view that sees personality dispositions and situational influences on behavior as opposing forces, is that a person’s circumstances can reveal what their personality is really like.
For example, facing danger provides a test of whether one will be cowardly or courageous, treacherous or loyal, depending on one’s individual strengths and weaknesses, virtues, and vices. Similarly, when at its best, Game of Thrones was able to tell stories in which interesting characters faced trying circumstances that required them to make difficult choices, and these choices revealed their true selves.
Tufekci argued that being given power corrupts even well-meaning leaders, but an alternative view is that power provides a test of the strength of a person’s character, that is, whether one has the capacity to act with moral integrity or whether one sees power as a path to self-aggrandizement. This question of choice was actually raised in the final episode of season eight in a scene in which Tyrion asks Jon Snow whether he would have acted the same way as Daenerys if he had opportunity to do so. (See this clip.)
Tyrion reminds him that he has ridden on a dragon’s back, that he had that power, and asks him if he would have burned a city down? This question brings into focus the crucial importance of personal responsibility and choice. Situationist accounts of behavior tend to downplay personal responsibility and imply that people are controlled by external forces, which also seems to be Tufekci’s argument. This is a disempowering view of human nature and one that is based on discredited ideas, like the FAE.
Tufekci goes on to talk about the need to change the structures, incentives, and forces that shape how people and their companies behave, rather than trying to “dethrone antiheroes and replace them with good people.” This is all very well but it is worthwhile to remember that structural changes to society are often brought about by individuals who have the vision and the means to do so.
For example, I noted in a previous post on American presidents that individual personality traits were substantially related to a president’s effectiveness while in office. I agree with her that it is important for society to build good institutions and provide incentives for people to behave well. But let’s not overlook the importance of individuals in shaping society.
1 Tufekci also complains that the scriptwriters explain Daenerys’ destructive choices in terms of “genetic determinism,” because the other characters note that madness runs in Dany’s family, as if this is a radical departure from the show’s previous sociological emphasis. On the contrary, from season 1, one of the show’s recurring themes was that incest has negative consequences for the children of such unions, which includes Daenerys and her family, with its long history of inbreeding. Hence, so-called “genetic determinism,” or at least recognition that heredity matters, has been an integral component of the storylines, even when it was supposed to be a “sociological” show.