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.’