The Story: Its Pitfalls and Triumphs

The tendency for us humans to misinterpret, misunderstand, and generally commit a plethora of logical fallacies is well-documented, and I’m sure you’ve personally experienced the concept of “human error.” What I would like to explore further today is one common culprit of these fallacies, which is the story.

We use stories to communicate our ideas all of the time — you don’t need to look further than the Bible, Hollywood films, or the use of the metaphor. What many don’t realize is that the story often skews our perception of the world in an unfair direction. Stories are often over-simplified versions of larger concepts, which deserve a more thorough explanation. So why do we tend to resort to this method of explanation when it is faulty?

The answer is that we much prefer to view the world in a simple, clean manner, with all of the ends tied up neatly. The story often accomplishes that for us. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. There’s a hero and a villain. There’s a right and a wrong, and often very little gray area between those two poles. There’s a moral and a lesson.

However, it goes without saying that our society is not comparable to a story. The universe is extremely complicated, and increasingly so. It is inefficient to organize the world into these black-and-white categories, because these isolated ideologies do not reflect the world they attempt to represent. For an example I’m sure we can all relate to: This view of the universe is inefficient for the same reason that a politically polarized Washington is highly infuriating for its constituents.

Humans love a black-and-white, oversimplified story to simplify this mess of a society, but to organize our thoughts in this way is commiting a huge fallacy, and has the opportunity to be extremely misleading (propaganda is a prominent example of this). But we continue to operate in this manner, because to constantly analyze and evaluate a situation on a logically-valid level is exhausting and straining.

I have recently read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and it has opened my eyes to our tendency to use heuristics and inadequate judgements in order to make decisions and understand our surroundings. The use of a story to oversimplify a larger issue is an example of one of the faulty mental shortcuts that Kahneman associates with “System 1.”

So, we’ve established that a story isn’t always the most factually perfect way to represent or explain an issue. From this standpoint, it would be much better to explain these issues with statistics, charts, and tedious risk-benefit analyses. However, it is apparent that it is unnatural for us to use these algorithmic tools to understand the world around us.

This raises the essential question: Should we use the “inorganic” but logically and factually accurate method of the algorithm, or the imperfect but more easily-understood and impactful method of storytelling?
Thus far, I have primarily represented storytelling in a negative context, but it should be noted that stories can be extremely impactful, and I’m sure you have experienced the impact of a good story more so than the impact of a perfect statistic. For this reason, they can be extremely useful in getting a point across.

It should be noted, however, that stories can be used for both good and bad, so one must be careful. Journalism, novels (it does not matter whether the story being told is true or not), propaganda, religion, and classic Hollywood films are all examples of stories, for better or for worse.

You can also see the use of stories often in the words of politicians. There is a reason that many politicians tell personal stories during debates rather than rattling off fact-based policies — because they stick with people much easier. That isn’t to say they never use numbers and facts. In fact, in my opinion a good politician knows how to adequately balance the two.

It is evident that stories can be both good and bad, and the most important thing is to really pay attention to the information you are being fed. If you are aware that stories can often be deceiving, it is easier to look for the signs of falsehoods and detect what is really being said. The form of communication can often change the message behind it.

With that, I encourage you to read into the expression “there are always two sides to the story” a bit further.

One thought on “The Story: Its Pitfalls and Triumphs

  1. What a great topic for these days! It reminds me of how I let myself go, unchecked; when I unquestioningly believe my own stories and those of others; when I forget about curiosity and shut myself in a clean circle with strong sides. PITFALLS.
    Some research suggests it’s in our DNA to make fast decisive decisions so we don’t get overtaken by prey. Seconds count in survival, TRIUMPH as you stated.
    Pushing toward awareness of when we’re grabbing only the ideas that support our thinking/story is what your article helps me do.
    My intention is to live in a Venn diagram vs a single circle! We need each other for Venn checks.
    Even Kahneman admits his life has barely changed by writing Thinking Fast and Slow.
    Clever ending that you wrote! I’m going to make a story about there being two sides to every story. How could I go wrong?

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