🧠Know Your Narratives
Wisdom Letter #65 | Mind Your Brain
Do you know when did the Bolshevik revolution start? Or the roles of the important players in that revolution. Any details about the toppling of the czarist regime or the birth of USSR?
Hard to remembers right? Unless you’re Russian of course.
Have you read Animal Farm?
Its a brilliant piece of literature that captures the essence of the Bolshevik revolution. It portrays a group of animals living in a farm who revolt against their owner, push him out and establish self rule.
Each animal in the farm represents a character from the Russian revolution, the lessons you learn about them perhaps teach you more than any other history book about the event.
There’s a line in the book that captures the worst of communism gone wrong —
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
This one statement says a lot more about communism’s problems than any other elaborate critique.
There’s a reason why Animal Farm works so well, and there’s a reason why this quote works so well in making the point.
The secret lies in the Power of Narratives.
This post is not about the Russian Revolution, its not about communism, its not even about George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Instead its about the vulnerability of our brain in falling for narratives.
Hello and welcome to The Wisdom Project, your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise. Today we are talking about The Narrative Fallacy.
Our brain works on stories. It craves for patterns in everyday mundane events. That’s why we find it hard to memorize a bunch of random facts, but can easily remember the most elaborate stories.
Our brain is a pattern matching machine. It uses patterns in every piece of data to make better sense of it. And its great, its very effective. Thousand of years of evolution is evidence that this pattern matching algorithm works, and works really well.
In prehistoric times, only when we could establish a pattern between the rustling of grass and the arrival of a Lion did we manage to learn to escape and save our lives.
We did not inherit the genes that could not establish those patterns, simply because those genes didn’t survive. They got devoured by hungry Lions.
Our neurons are riddled with such patterns that have been passed down in our genes over millennia. Most of color psychology is based on this. That’s why Red raises our adrenaline and Green soothes our psyche.
Sometimes we even look for patterns where none exist. Many a times we don’t realize we are being influenced by the pattern matching tendency of our brains.
And its this ignorance that works against us.
The Narrative Fallacy
“We seek explanations even to the point that we will manufacture them”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Narrative Fallacy is the concept that our brain tends to fall for well crafted narratives, even when they are far from the truth.
It was coined and further explained by Taleb in his seminal books : Fooled by Randomness & The Black Swan.
We have this tremendous urge to make sense of everything. To rationalize everything. To fit every event in a neat pattern or a smart story that explains everything.
The narrative fallacy works against us when its used to influence our behavior. And it works for us when we can use it intelligently to our advantage.
Most religions try to provide answers to the unanswerable questions of life. The big profound questions that scare us. The questions we have been grappling with since the dawn of time.
And to answer those questions religions have had to build narratives.
Ancient Greeks built narratives around the natural world. So we had the gods of Earth, the Sky and the Oceans etc. These gods controlled nature and the randomness of natural events like rain and lightening strikes and tornados could be explained through the moods of these gods.
More recent religions built narratives around humans. So we had Jesus who was a messiah who made the supreme sacrifice to pay for the sins of all of humanity.
Its such a powerful narrative that it runs more than half the world today.
Was there a man called Jesus Christ that lived 2000 years ago?— probably yes.
Could he walk on water?— probably not.
But the narrative of Jesus Christ helps establish clearly why we are born, what we must do while we live and what happens when we die. And clarity around these big questions can really make our life a lot more peaceful.
That’s why religion works.
But with time religions evolve as modern societies need modern narratives.
Democracy vs Authoritarianism
Socialism vs Capitalism.
Conservatism vs Liberalism.
These are some of the modern narratives that we deal with today. Essentially these are different ways to organize society that some of us believe in and some of us hate.
But we often fail to realize that these are just narratives, not hard truths of nature. They have taken the form of modern religions.
We make these narratives a part of our identity and fight tooth and nail among ourselves to defend them.
Often failing to realize that the biggest reason we have been able to survive and thrive is the basic tenet of co-operation among large groups.
Its ironic that while all religions preach peace and co-operation, the most violent wars are fought in the name of religion. Both historic and modern religions.
That’s the power of narratives.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the narrative fallacy is how it deludes us about our own success or failure.
Ever hear about the college dropout who became a tech billionaire?
And what about the ones who didn’t make it?
Stories of Zuck, Gates and Jobs work because they are fodder for beautiful narratives. They are literally the stuff of what movies are made of. Also, these narrative stand out because they are exceptions not the norm.
And the stories of failure, of the boring grind of day to day entrepreneurship that doesn’t work. The stories of finally quitting after 5 years of failure and joining someone else’s billion dollar dream.
Those stories never make it to the movie theatres or the bestseller stands.
Because they don’t capture the imagination, they don’t make for powerful narratives. Though that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Statistically you are better off completing your education.
So should you dropout of college to become a billionaire? probably not.
If you fall for the narrative of the college dropout tech founder, then you are mistaking correlation for causation. You may be in for a rude shock!
Me vs Me
Another way the narrative fallacy impacts us personally is that we misinterpret the role of luck and skill in our lives.
Its very easy to fall for your own narrative.
A lot of success in life can be attributed to being at the right place at the right time. There’s an element of randomness and luck in every aspect of life. We often forget this fact when the times are good and life is going well for us.
And the reverse is also true. When times are tough, we rush to attribute our failures to just bad luck, or to some other third party or person which is beyond our control. We tend to shirk responsibility away.
When we start believing in our own false narratives we indulge in a kind of victim mentality that can prevent us from getting out of a rut and improving ourselves.
As the genius physicist Richard Feynman said —
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
What can we do?
We can keep an eye out for it.
The narrative fallacy exposes the flaws of our brain. Its a hardware problem.
We can deploy a software solution to rectify it. We can use our mind to rein in our brain.
Like most cognitive biases, even with the narrative fallacy, just knowing about it is half the battle won. Once you internalize the bias you can actively look out for it in your reasoning.
Some practical tips to stay away from the narrative fallacy.
Don’t fall for the mythology. Most religion is symbolism. Its important to focus on the essence of the life lesson that religion preaches than to believe the stories literally.
Don’t fall for the ideology. The first point applies to both ancient as well as modern religions. Don’t blindly trust the narratives of socialism or capitalisms or any other ‘ism’ that you come across. These ideas sound great in textbooks but real life is a lot messier. Judge most social organizing ideas based on outcomes than intentions.
Don’t fall for the hero’s journey. Its the oldest storytelling trick in the book. It exploits our tendency to fall for narratives. It sounds great in movies and books but its the exception not the rule.
Life is random. Appreciate the role of randomness in your successes and failures. Don’t fall for your own narratives. Take responsibility for your losses, and stay humble in your wins.
Nuance over Narrative. Look for the unsaid tenets of any narrative. The missing pieces of a puzzle, the messiness of life in every situation. The truth is often not as interesting as a story, it may even be mundane and dry, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Animal Farm is a piece of masterful storytelling. But it is not the entire truth about the Russian revolution.
The lives of Lenin and Trostky were a lot more complex than the pigs of Animal Farm. The ideas of socialism, flawed or otherwise, need to be studied deeply and with some nuance before being accepted or rejected altogether.
Hope this post helps you understand your tendency to fall for narratives, and helps you use your reason to prevent that.
Thank you for reading.
This post is part of a series where we explore the complex love-hate relationship between our minds and brains, find out more about the series— Mind Your Brain
Status Quo stickiness — Wisdom Letter #57
Confirmation Bias — Wisdom Letter #49
Meta-Cognition: One Skill To Rule Them All — Wisdom Letter #45
Read the FarnamStreet post for a deeper discussion on the idea. — Narrative Fallacy | Farnam Street Blog
Checkout Nassim Taleb’s books for an even deeper discussion on the narrative fallacy and other ideas around risk and uncertainty — Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan
Also checkout SuperThinking by Gabriel Weinberg & Lauren McCann, its like the bible of cognitive biases and mental models.
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This was Wisdom Letter #65. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 64 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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Aditi & Ayush