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.

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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.

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