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Issue #39 - The Narrative Fallacy 📰
Stories, or narratives, help us make sense of the world. Or do they?
Enter the narrative fallacy.
What is the narrative fallacy?
A fallacy is the use of faulty reasoning.
The narrative fallacy is how stories - or narratives - are associated with faulty reasoning.
Here's how Nassim Taleb explains it in The Black Swan:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
In other words, humans have a tendency to turn everything into a story! None of us are immune to the narrative fallacy. Here's more from The Black Swan:
Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness.
Why is this interesting?
Stories simplify things and help us remember things. However, the narrative that we construct can distract from the fact we don't actually know the real facts and causality, or from the arguably more important parts of the story.
I like how Rolf Dobelli explains that in this example of news media narratives:
A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? On the car. On the person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). What kind of person he is (was). But – that is all completely irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking and could lurk in other bridges. That is the lesson to be learned from this event.
Another example is biographies. I used to enjoy reading biographies, those cherry picked chapters for a neatly woven story of someones life - but I had to quit those after learning about the narrative fallacy! (Let alone the survivorship bias and hindsight bias.)
Stories can be used to inspire or teach - so enjoy them and use their power as you wish, but beware they are simplistic representations at best, and deeply deceptive at worst!
I'll leave you with Taleb's dry but helpful advice to be scientific:
You can escape the narrative fallacy by making conjectures and running experiments, by making testable predictions
Want to go deeper?
🎥 The Steve Jobs fans might recall the famous lines from his commencement address that many found inspiring, but reeks of narrative fallacy:
Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on ... you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
💎 I really enjoyed Rolf Dobelli's thought-provoking manifesto on a Low New's Diet - I highly recommend reading it in full here!
News is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. ... we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright colored candies for the mind.
Also, here's Dobelli’s upcoming book where he'll expand on the ideas.
🔖 And from king Kahneman - who knows us all better than we know ourselves:
No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.
🧠 Related mental models from the archive
What's your thoughts on or experience with the narrative fallacy?
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