When We Tell Ourselves Stories

Someone at LessWrong transcribed Tyler Cowen's TEDx talk on the problem with stories and narrative–and how we let ourselves be governed by them. It's a good one, and faster to read than listen.

I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it away, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more….

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they're the subject of so many books these days. There's the Nudgebook, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don't these books tell us that? It's because the books themselves are all about stories. 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. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like "I bought this book. I won't be Predictably Irrational." It's like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It's why there's such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that's maybe the bigger fallacy. It's just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They're the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It's the people that realize, "I don't know anything at all," that end up doing pretty well.


The other week I hosted a storytelling night. Eight of us convened and each went around the room and told a story. My suggested theme to the group was travel. One person's said the following near the beginning of his story: "And then I embarked on a monthlong trip through the Bolvian highlands. I was all by myself, and I had plenty of time to think about Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Tyler Cowen." It was a fun evening.

10 comments on “When We Tell Ourselves Stories
  • No wonder Tyler Cowen is suspicious of stories and they make him nervous– he can’t tell them well. He speaks too rapidly, in a weak high-pitched voice with too little intonation. The man is no orator.

    How fabulously ironic that the minion of the Kochtopus has to use stories to make his points about the pitfalls of stories, even though he does acknowledge that very fact: “I used to think I was within the camp of economists…”.

    I’m certainly suspicious of any stories told by someone on the climate science-denying Koch brothers’ payroll. Telling made-up stories is a family tradition for the grandsons of the man who worked for Joseph Stalin in the nineteen-thirties. Oh fabulous irony! Their father, Fred Koch, became one of the original members of the John Birch Society in 1958.

    Cowen did make me laugh when he said, “So pig-headedly unreasonable you think, ‘How can they possibly believe that!?'” Hmm… that’s just what I think when I read Tyler Cowen on economics.

    I guess he doesn’t want people telling the story of the Koch brothers’ lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation.

    Perhaps one one of their low-level flunkies will astroturf this comment thread.

    I mean, hey, that right-wing, redneck stuff works, better than Tyler’s stories.

  • Correction: It was the Koch Brothers’ father, Fred, who went to the Soviet Union.

    According to this article in the New Yorker:

    “In 1927, he invented a more efficient process for converting oil into gasoline…In the nineteen-thirties, his company trained Bolshevik engineers and helped Stalin’s regime set up fifteen modern oil refineries.

    In 1958, Fred Koch became one of the original members of the John Birch Society… he wrote admiringly of Benito Mussolini’s suppression of Communists in Italy, and disparagingly of the American civil-rights movement. ‘The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,’ he warned. Welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment a vicious race war.”

    Some story.

  • Interesting Vonnegut quote from a related thread on Metafilter: http://www.metafilter.com/110986/Tyler-Cowens-story-about-stories

    “I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, with such abominable results: they were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

    Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

    And so on.

    Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

    If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”

    ― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions 1973

  • Yes, according to the New Yorker article:

    “Over time, however, Stalin brutally purged several of Koch’s Soviet colleagues. Koch was deeply affected by the experience, and regretted his collaboration.”

    “Gus diZerega, a former friend of Charles Koch, recalled, ‘As the Soviets became a stronger military power, Fred felt a certain amount of guilt at having helped build them up. I think it bothered him a lot.'”

    Still, surely most people will find it surprising.

    I think they’d be even more surprised to learn that the ostensibly libertarian Koch brothers, who advocate minimal government and reduced services for the poor and needy, are major recipients of corporate welfare.

    In 2009, their company, Georgia-Pacific, was subsidized by at least $1 billion in taxpayer dollars (in the form of federal tax credits). They exploited the tax code by adding petroleum to the “black liquor” they burn in their boilers, thus qualifying for a tax credit that was intended to encourage the burning of biomass for industrial fuel.

    I wonder how much the hypocrisy bothers the Kochs.

    I’d love to hear their hey-boy Tyler Cowen tell that story.;-)

  • Can’t limit yourself to just one story. When I am trying to understand something that I cannot learn through doing, I use stories. I tell it to myself, to others, online. I emphasize different facts, construct a new narrative line, rearrange how I reveal the timeline. Stories can be powerful mental testing labs. Sometimes I may settle on a narrative that aids me best, but often I just put them all side-by-side. All the options and stories and interpretations in one place, all of them true and all of them false. I may not be able to explain how A lead to Z or if A even has anything to do with Z, but I have a greater understanding of the matter as a whole.

    I was a history and comp lit major back in undergrad. I love stories, but I also know that one is not sufficient. I think of a single story as an argument with every word, character, and scene chosen to support the thesis. (You can see this a lot in historical accounts.) And, if a story is an argument, then something is being left out or pushed aside or etc. This is one reason I love fairy tale retellings so much. They open up the narrative debate.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *