How Stories Mislead Us

For the past few days I've been thinking out loud about the importance of narrative form to the mind—that way we have of being much more impressed by information in story form than in statistics or other raw data. Not everyone agrees with the advocates of "narrativity" that narrative is an essential defining feature of the human mind. But I think we can stipulate that story-telling dominates a lot of our conversations about what is real and what we ought to do about it. In this interesting talk a few months ago, the economist Tyler Cowen made the case that this penchant for narrative is an obstacle to thinking clearly and well about the pressing problems of the day.


Story-telling, Cowen notes, is the antithesis of scientific thinking. Stories, as all those how-to-write advice books keep telling you, are about individuals. Data denies this individuality. When an insurance company predicts that 400 people will die in traffic accidents over a holiday weekend, they're viewing all drivers as interchangeable: The same forces act on Joe as on Jane, causing a percentage of the total to die. The differences between Joe and Jane count for nothing in this analysis, which treats them, therefore, as if they were all exactly alike. The story of Joe's fatal accident, though, must treat him as if he is unique. It may do this very well, yielding an irresistible narrative of that makes us cringe at each sorry moment of lapsed judgment and overconfidence. Or it may do it dully, saying only that Joe drove away at 10:17 P.M. and crashed at 10:46. But it cannot escape being about Joe in particular.

By their nature, then, stories invite us to look for unique causes—aspects of Joe's character, unfortunate timings (going for a drink right after that break-up with Jane), tiny details (like the last drink he didn't want but his friend was buying). That's just the detail that is left out when we consider facts without narrative.

So science is a method for finding generalizations that can be used to explain what people-in-general experience, while narrative is a means of creating unique accounts of what I experienced, in all its fine-grained difference from what you did. Scientific reasoning and story-telling pull in opposite directions. This, as Cowen notes, creates a peculiar problem for those of us who create narratives about science. We're using stories to explain anti-story thinking.

Speaking of books about unconscious human biases, Cowen cleverly points this out: "The more of these books you read, you're learning about some of your biases, but you're making some of your other biases essentially worse," because the books themselves, chock full of good stories, feed your cognitive bias for narrative.

Cowen does a good job of summing up the pitfalls of that bias. First, he notes, narratives are simple. What is ambiguous, inexplicable and accidental tends to get filtered out of them, leaving an impression that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is. So stories incline us to blame (this didn't just happen, it's their fault) and to hubris (I know the real story, I don't care what other evidence you want to present). Then, too, we don't have a lot of different forms for our stories. Under all their variety are a few structures that occur again and again. So thinking in narrative encourages us to see disparate experiences as if they were the same (as in, "I'm turning into my mother!" or "Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again!"). And, of course, stories compel our attention and emotions, so people who tell us a powerful story can manipulate us.

His advice for protecting ourselves? Be a little ware of a good tale, and be open to the idea that sometimes things just happen, and events can emerge out of other events, without intention or meaning. In fact, his advice adds up to this: Try to be more like the philosopher Galen Strawson, whom I wrote about yesterday. "I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none," writes Strawson. Trying to be like that, Cowen says, can help defend against the pitfalls of narrative. Ask yourself, he says "do I really have to follow some kind of narrative? Can't I just live?"

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.