26th February 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

The stories we tell ourselves

The Narrative Fallacy 

Every day, we tell ourselves stories. As we go about our day, we piece together gaps in our knowledge – narrativising a standoffish stare on the tube or an unanswered text from a friend with a self-crafted explanation. 

Storytelling occurs at our most basic experience of navigating the world. But most of the time, we aren’t even aware of ourselves doing it. 

Consider this situation:

You are trying to get a house full of young children ready to leave the house for school. You have just made yourself a cup of coffee when you hear the phone buzz from the other room. When you return to the hectic kitchen, you notice a beige puddle over the carpet. You look up to the table and see that your mug has been turned on its side. Without even realising it, you have linked A (the coffee stain) to B (the slanted mug), binding these two disparate observations together with the logical explanation that the mug has been knocked over, spilling the coffee you had just made over the floor. 

Storytelling occurs at our most basic experience of navigating the world.

It takes conscious effort to experience the world without interpreting it. Without cause and effect, we would wade through the world like zombies, only aware of the present as a tangle of sensory impressions, unable to make sense of anything.

Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes our instinctive need to bind A to B – to weave separate facts together with an explanation – as the narrative fallacy

There is an evolutionary root to such behaviour. As science writer, Michael Shermer explains in a Ted-Talk, we are “pattern-seeking primates”. 

If we hear a rustling in the grass, it is in our favour to associate the noise with the threat of a predator and run away. 

This is the root of associated learning. Our ability to connect the dots – to find meaningful patterns in the world – protects us from danger and maximises our chances of survival.

The Halo Effect 

Whilst our compulsion to fill in the gaps in our experience of the world enables us to make sense of it, it can also cloud our vision. Our ingrained pattern-seeking faculties can cause us to become fixed in ingrained patterns of thinking, jumping to conclusions and misjudging character. 

Daniel Kahneman elucidates this bias in his seminal book, Thinking Fast & Slow. When marking his students papers, Kahneman noticed an uncanny consistency in his students’ exam results. 

“I began to suspect that my grading exhibited a halo effect,” he concluded. “The first question I scored had a disproportionate effect on the overall grade.”

He found himself more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to vague or ambiguous statements from students who had performed better in the past.

Kahneman describes the halo effect as “exaggerated emotional coherence”. Once we form an opinion about a person, we are prone to judge other aspects of their character in light of this initial belief. This is because we are hardwired to look for evidence that bolster opinions we already have, rather than submit to the uncertainty admitted by new ideas.

“Ideas are sticky,” he writes, “once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds.”

If we find the political beliefs of a politician amiable, we are likely to also like his voice, hair and manner. 

The halo effect means that we are prone to flatten contradictions – to reduce the complex interaction of qualities that make up all of us into neat, binary terms. 

“Ideas are sticky,” he writes, “once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds.”

The Black Swan Effect 

Telling stories like this enables us to impose order on the world. We feel more comfortable with coherent stories, than we do with experiencing the world as it really is, which a lot of the time is random, incoherent and unpredictable. 

Taleb describes our tendency to perceive “past events as more predictable, more expected, and less random than they actually were” as the Black Swan effect.

“We will tend to more easily remember those facts from our past that fit a narrative, while we tend to neglect others that do not appear to play a causal role in that narrative,” he writes. 

This occurs in the narrative of our own lives, but also in the way we perceive history. We look back at global events like the Wall Street Crash as the logical result of a number of factors, eliminating the role of randomness, chance and ambiguity. 

“Flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations for the future,” Kahneman writes on Taleb’s theory. “The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract, assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.”

These compact stories are comforting to us. They are easier to remember and pass on to others. 

The problem arises when we are not critical about these compacted narratives. The stories we tell ourselves ensnare our existence, shaping the way we see the world and ourselves within it. 

We feel more comfortable with coherent stories, than we do with experiencing the world as it really is, which a lot of the time is random, incoherent and unpredictable. 

The stories we tell ourselves

Yet once we are aware of our story-telling tendencies, we can use this to our advantage. The stories we tell ourselves provide an insight into our subconscious minds: our fears, desires and ambitions. When we reflect on these stories, we can learn more about ourselves – what our values are, what we view as meaningful and important. 

And here is the most exciting part. In realising how prone we are to tell stories, and more importantly – to believe them – we are able to create new ones. And when we change the stories we tell ourselves, we can change the way we see the world and ourselves within it.

Being conscious of the stories we tell ourselves prevents us from becoming fixed in the same patterns of behaviour and thought. We can thrive in an unpredictable, changing world in our ability to change the way we exist within it. 

 


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