07.15.19 | The Narrative Fallacy

Chalk it up to the human condition. We all love a good story. A problem can arise, however, when a story (intentionally or not) distorts reality. Unless we recognize the Narrative Fallacy for what it is, a simplified and often incorrect view of the real world, we carry a false confidence about our knowledge of the past, our reckoning with basic logic, and its usefulness in predicting the future.

An example borrowed from a previous Science Friday session (in turn, from the work of Kahneman) is illustrative:

"Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which alternative is more probable?
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement."

About 85% to 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option contrary to that most fundamental principle of logic (i.e. the "and" element reduces the odds of the broader bank teller sampling almost by logic definition). They were seduced by the story.

Our focus article is one answer (posed to a range of faculty members at Harvard) to the question of what is the one thing wrong with the world that you would change and why? (CLICK HERE) This esteemed cognitive psychologist cites a number of real-life examples to demonstrate how the narrative seduction drives statistical illiteracy and a disdain for data. Note, however, our discussion will certainly allow for a certain push-back to the cited examples.

Yet the broader point remains that by fulfilling our natural craving for order the narrative can mislead, even betray, us in fundamental ways. Some in-built narrative bias to seek patterns out of random events might have had an evolutionary origin (e.g. was that grass moving as a result of the wind or a predator?) but can now serve to keep us from understanding the world as it really is. We may be quick to infer, say, talent or moral failing from an event or circumstance which in actuality was the result of pure randomness (see The Role of Luck in Life | MM 4/9/18).

So, perhaps the human species is not so much a rational species as it is rationalizing one. We may share some examples arising from our own life experiences as we look for a story where there really wasn't one. It may be totally innocuous, simple pure entertainment, such as some rags-to-riches or dream-turned-reality sports story conjured up by ESPN. Or the asserted cause-and-effect tale might show up as a reductive narrative in some business-case study as an explanation for success. In many cases, however, the story's epilogue demonstrates the real lesson to be simply the inevitability of regression. The book Built To Last, by Jim Collins (who happened to write his Good To Great right here at Highland) provides several unintended ironic examples in that many of the cited companies -- Citigroup, Hewlett Packard, Motorola, Sony -- soon became shells of their former selves.

Sometimes the false narrative may have tragic, even epic, consequences. Consider the hallucination known as Vietnam. Those of a certain age will recall falling for the storyline about maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever-encroaching Doodah. The potential danger of narratives continued -- stories about ripping babies out of incubators (Middle East One) or Yellow Cake (Middle East Two) or Axis of Evil (Middle East forever). At what point does it become clear we're being played by the narrative (my own epiphany came literally with one sentence in a book published nearly two decades ago).

So perhaps you can share our own way to address the perils of the false narrative. One (perhaps extreme) thought: the first step to circumvent narrative is to simply avoid or reinterpret sources of information most subject to bias. Be aware that TV news/commentary often targets the amygdala. Be skeptical of biographies, memoirs, and personal stories. Consider movies labeled "based on/inspired by events" as nothing more than emotional entertainment. Above all, deem all the foregoing to be specifically aimed at messing with your head.

Your thoughts?

(CLICK HERE TO RSVP for this session, RSVP is open as of 11:00 AM, Friday, July 12)

Steve SmithComment