Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Narrative Fallacy

We tend to look at the events of our lives as stories. While our stories will fit the data of the world most of the time, there will be rare but significant moments when our stories about the world will fail. These incidents are as distressing as they are inevitable.

Anyway. Here’s something I thought of on the bus today.

Since we understand the world in terms of stories, we judge the validity of particular storylines not only by how well they fit the world but also by how successful they are as stories.

This isn’t a huge problem when we have a lot of data (in our own life, for instance). Since we have a lot of data we’re probably constrained to make storylines which are a closer fit to the world.

Where this effect is really significant, I think, is in parts of our knowledge where we rely mostly on hearsay—where we don’t have a lot of easily available data to whittle down our storyline options.

Now tons of stuff we believe in relies on hearsay. Our beliefs about the nature of the universe, our beliefs about politics, and history are mostly formed by stories other people tell us rather than from our own observation.

In these situations since we don’t have a lot of data with which to falsify or verify these stories, we will tend to choose stories which provide more narrative satisfaction.

For instance, I am interested in the US health care debate, but I do not have time enough to adequately educate myself about it. But I still need some kind of opinion about it. So what opinion do I choose? I will choose a story which makes sense to me. “President Obama is selling us out because he is a liar.” Or, “President Obama is standing up for me and he will choose the best possible policy option.”
Now this problem is especially pernicious when it comes to journalism. The success of a journalist is dependent on his or her ability to construct meaningful stories out of the data of the world—not on their ability to construct more accurate stories about the world.

You can see this in reporting on the stock market. The condition of the stock market effects the well-being of many people, so it is a story which we have to tell. So when there is an unusual movement of the stock market journalists have to explain it. “The stock market crashed and then recovered very quickly today because of a computer error.” “The stock market rose today because of investor hopes of a change in the interest rate.” But the stock market is a notoriously complex system which defies easy analysis. The same conditions which are used today to explain a rise in the stock market will be used tomorrow to explain a crash in the stock market. The real reasons for these rises and falls are too complicated for non-experts to understand (and probably too complicated even for the experts to understand.) So we tell ourselves stories about these events which make sense but don’t actually convey the nature of reality.

This narrative fallacy can explain religious and political enthusiasm, too: having a particular storyline which can explain everything in the world is very comforting. “Everything would be better if people just followed Marx.” “The world is bad because nobody is a real Christian.” “America is corrupted by special interests.” All of these ideas provide very compelling stories which explain the world in narratively satisfactory ways. The problem is that they don’t accurately reflect the world. Since we don’t actually have a lot of commerce with data about politics, we are able to keep these inaccurate beliefs safe from recalcitrant experience. In our personal lives we are held to greater accuracy about our stories because we are more likely to encounter recalcitrant experience.

Here is Tocqueville talking about something similar. He's discussing how pre-Revolutionary France was led by its writers.

When we study the history of our Revolution, we realize that it was prompted by precisely the same outlook which inspired so many books on the theory of government. They reflected the same attractions for universal theories, comprehensive systems of legislation and an exact summary in the laws; the same contempt for existing facts; the same faith in theory; the same taste of the original; the ingenious and the novel in reshaping institutions; the same desire to reconstruct the entire constitution at one and the same time following the rule of logic and according to a single plan instead of seeking to reform it in its separate parts. A frightening spectacle! For what is a good quality in a writer is a failing in a politician and the very themes which have often produced fine books may lead to great upheavals.

If I was Malcom Gladwell I’d call this something like ‘The Storyteller’s Illusion’. But I’m not. So it’s ‘the Narrative Fallacy.’


cfs said...

Brendan! Nice to see you writing on your blog again. I enjoyed your post and you're totally right, this "narrative fallacy" pervades our every perception and has certainly been the subject of philosophical inquiry. Specifically, David Hume comes to mind with his skeptical empiricism and focus on the fact that there is almost never a "necessary connection" or causality between one occurrence and another. Causality is the basic building block of a good story or narrative, and even when we seem to have all the facts ("the market rose due to investors exuberance about the change in interest rates") it often turns out that we are dead wrong or at least omitting a ton of other forces in play. My question to you is: what stance do we take in the face of this recognition? Our minds must piece together these narratives to filter out extraneous information so that we can function. However, we often go too far in ignoring or rejecting information that doesn't fit into the nice neat stories we tell ourselves (ideology). Can we have one without the other? Is there a way to limit the damage that we do with "the facts"?

Unknown said...

I think that stories themselves aren't the problem. I will give an example to show the problem I'm talking about.

We have a particular situation (let's say the data set is: a pretty girl is laughing at my jokes and she asks for my number). And we are compelled to make a story about this situation. But there are a number of different storylines which can fit onto this data set. How do I choose the right storyline?

For instance:

1) the girl likes me.

2) the girl is pretending to like me.


The narrative fallacy is that when we are choosing a particular storyline, we are more likely to choose one with narrative satisfaction.

But in our situation above, what if simple explanations like 1) and 2) don't explain the pretty girl's behavior? What if the reason for her flirtatious behavior was so complicated and strange that it just doesn't make a lot of sense? What if she liked me but then also liked another guy and when we were talking together she thought I was better than the other guy but then later she realized the other guy was better than me but she couldn't really be sure and so she still acts like she likes me?

I think narratives are necessary to understand life. For me the problem isn't narrative at all.

I think there are two sides to the problem. With the stories we make about our own life, we just have to learn to accept that we're going to be wrong sometimes.

With the stories we make about the wider world (which are much more likely to suffer from the narrative fallacy, I believe,) we should do something else. We should inform ourselves about the outside world in different ways. Most specifically, I think that journalism should focus less on making good stories, and more on the explanation of human phenomena--> I want journalism to stop being a refuge of mediocre creative writers, and start being a refuge of mediocre social scientists.

Not gonna happen.