Behavioral Science Facts That Also Make Great Writing Prompts

Who says science can’t be poetic? Here are some science facts that would make great starting points for a story or poem. I recently used these as prompts in a writing workshop whose theme was Using Behavioral Science to Build Better Scenes and Characters. Below, you’ll find the citations for the original studies, as well as sources that describe these studies in ways that are accessible to non-scientists.

Creative writing prompt: Pick one of the following sentences and make it the first line of a story or poem

The desire for revenge is a physical craving.

I originally learned this from a book called We Need to Talk: How to Have Better Conversations, by Celeste Headlee. In a chapter making the case for apologies, she describes the work of Michael McCollough, who runs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami and who says that the brain scan of someone who has just been harmed or insulted looks similar to “the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a drink or somebody who’s hungry who’s about to get a piece of chocolate to eat. . . . It is literally a craving.”


Michael McCullough, “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness,” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, May 24, 2012

Laughter is a social bonding activity.

You can learn more in the “Laughter” episode of the Here We Are Podcast, a great podcast in which standup comic Shane Mauss interviews behavioral scientists. In this episode, he’s talking to Greg Bryant, assistant communications professor at UCLA, who studies – among other things – the vocal elements that make laughter contagious.


  • Bryant, Greg. “Shared laughter in conversation as coalition signaling.” XXI BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON HUMAN ETHOLOGY VIENNA/AUSTRIA. 2012.
  • Bryant, Gregory A., and C. Athena Aktipis. “The animal nature of spontaneous human laughter.” Evolution and Human Behavior 35.4 (2014): 327-335.

“Justice may be blind, but she’s sure sensitive to her stomach gurgling.”

This is a quote from the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In a chapter on metaphor, he explains that “‘hungering for fame and fortune’ are just metaphors, but our brain activates the circuitry that goes along with real hunger. When people are physically hungry, they become less generous in many ways, including this one, with huge real-world applications: Judges are more likely to grant parole if they’ve just eaten lunch. “In a study of more than 1,100 judicial rulings, prisoners were granted parole at about a 60 percent rate when judges had recently eaten, and at essentially a 0 percent rate just before judges ate (note also the overall decline over the course of a tiring day).”


Briers et al., “Hungry for Money: The Desire for Caloric Resources Increases the Desire for Financial Resources and Vice Versa,” Psych Sci 17 (2006)

What we’re feeling inside can be hard to separate from what we’re feeling outside

These examples are also from Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave. In one example, when a resume was attached to a heavy clipboard, evaluators were more likely to describe the job applicant as serious, able to appreciate the gravity of a situation and deal with weighty matters, rather than being a lightweight. In another example, holding either a cup of hot coffee or iced coffee while interacting with someone made volunteers more likely to rate that person as having a warm or cold personality.


J. Ackerman et al., “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions,” Sci 328 (2010)

L. Williams and J. Bargh, “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth,” Sci 322 (2008): Y. Kang et al., “Physical Temperature Effects on Trust Behavior: The Role of Insula,” SCAN 6 (2010): 507.

Teachers: Looking for a behavioral science lesson plan to use your students?

You’ll find a full lesson plan on the brain science behind figurative language on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The lesson plan includes:

  • An intro full of hidden figurative language.
  • An answer key that highlights all 17 examples of figurative language in the intro.
  • Behavioral scientist Robert Sapolsky’s explanation of how figurative language works in our brains.
  • Writing prompts and ideas for expanding the lesson to fill a 45-minute class period or 90-minute block.
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