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Why You're Stuck in a Narrative

38 [deleted] 04 August 2009 12:31AM

For some reason the narrative fallacy does not seem to get as much play as the other major cognitive fallacies. Apart from discussions of "The Black Swan", I never see it mentioned anywhere. Perhaps this is because it's not considered a "real" bias, or because it's an amalgamation of several lower-level biases, or because it's difficult to do controlled studies for. Regardless, I feel it's one of the more pernicious and damaging fallacies, and as such deserves an internet-indexable discussion.
From Taleb's "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.
Essentially, the narrative fallacy is our tendency to turn everything we see into a story - a linear chain of cause and effect, with a beginning and an end. Obviously the real world isn't like this - events are complex and interrelated, direct causation is extremely rare, and outcomes are probabilistic. Verbally, we know this - the hard part, as always, is convincing our brain of the fact.
Our brains are engines designed to analyze the environment, pick out the important parts, and use those to extrapolate into the future. To trot out some theoretical evolutionary support, only extremely basic extrapolation would be required in the ancestral evolutionary environment. Things like [Gather Food -> Eat Food -> Sate Hunger] or [See Tiger -> Run -> Don't Die]. Being able to produce simple chains of cause and effect would confer a significant survival advantage, but you wouldn't need anything more than that. The world was simple enough that we didn't have to deal with complex interactions - linear extrapolation was "good enough". The world is much different and much more complex today, but unforunately, we're still stuck with the same linear extrapolation hardware.
You can see the results of this 'good enough' solution in the design and function of our brain. Cognitively, it's much cheaper to interpret a group of things as a story - a pattern - than to remember each one of them seperately. Simplifying, summarizing, clustering, and chaining ideas together - reducing complex data to a few key factors, lets us get away with, say having an extremely small working memory, or a relatively slow neuron firing speed. Compression of some sort is needed for our brains to function - it'd be impossible to analyze the terabytes of data we receive every second from our senses otherwise. As such, we naturally reduce everything to the simplest pattern possible, and then process the pattern. So we're much better at remembering things as part of a pattern than as a random assortment. The alphabet is first learned as a song to help it stick. Mnemonic devices improve memory by establishing easy to remember relationships. By default our natural tendency, for any information, is to establish links and patterns in it to aid in processing. This by itself isn't a problem - the essence of of knowledge is drawing connections and making inferences. The problem is that because our hardware is designed to do it, it insists on finding links and patterns whether they actually exist or not.  We're biologically inclined to reduce complex events to a simpler, more palatable, more easily understood pattern - a story.
This tendency can be seen in a variety of lower level biases. For instance, the availability heuristic causes us to make predictions and inferences based on what most quickly comes to mind - what's most easily remembered. Hindsight bias causes us to interpret past events as obviously and inevitably causing future ones. Consistency bias causes us to reinterpret past events and behaviors to be consistent with new information. Confirmation bias causes us to only look for data to support the conclusions we've already arrived at. There's also our tendency to engage in rationalization, and create post-hoc explanations for our behavior. They all have the effect of of molding, shaping, and simplifying events into a kind of linear narrative, ignoring any contradiction, complexity, and general messiness.
Additionally, there's evidence that forming narratives out of the amalgamated behavior of semi-independent mental modules is one of the primary functions of consciousness. Dennet makes this argument in his paper "The Self as a Narrative Center of Gravity":
That is, it does seem that we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behavior, more or less unified, but sometimes disunified, and we always put the best "faces" on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography.
Because the brain is a hodge podge of dirty hacks and disconnected units, smoothing over and reinterpreting their behaviors to be part of a consistent whole is necessary to have a unified 'self'. Drescher makes a somewhat related conjecture in "Good and Real", introducing the idea of consciousness as a 'Cartesian Camcorder', a mental module which records and plays back perceptions and outputs from other parts of the brain, in a continuous stream. It's the idea of "I am not the one who thinks my thoughts, I am the one who hears my thoughts", the source of which escapes me. Empirical support of this comes from the experiments of Benjamin Libet, which show that a subconscious electrical processes precede conscious actions - implying that consciousness doesn't engage until after an action has already been decided. If this is in fact how we handle internal information - smoothing out the rough edges to provide some appearance of coherence, it shouldn't be suprising that we tend to handle external information in the same matter.
It seems then, that creating narratives isn't so much a choice as it is a basic feature of the architecture of our minds. From the paper "The Neurology of Narrative" (JSTOR), discussing people with damage to the area of the frontal lobe which processes higher order input:
They are unable to provide (and likely fail to generate internally) a narrative account of their experiences, wishes, and actions, although they are fully cognizant of their visual, auditory, and tactile surroundings. These individuals lead "denarrated" lives, aware but failing to organize experience in an action generating temporal frame. In the extreme, they do not speak unless spoken to and do not move unless very hungry. These patients illustrate the inseparable connection between narrativity and personhood. Brain injured individuals may lose their linguistic, mathematic, syllogistic, visuospatial, mnestic, or kinesthetic competencies and still be recognizably the same persons. Individuals who have lost the ability to construct narrative, however,have lost their selves.
You can see the extremes our tendency toward narrative can go with people who see themselves as the star or hero in a "movie about their life". These people tend to be severe narcissists (though I've heard some self help "experts" espouse this as a healthy outlook to adopt), but it's not hard to see why such a view is so appealing. As the star of a movie, the events in your life are all extremely important, and are building to something that will inevitably occur later. You'll face difficulties, but you will ultimately overcome them, and your triumph will be all the greater for it (we seldom imagine our lives as a tragedy). You'll fight and conquer your enemies. You'll win over the love interest. It's all immensely appealing to our most basic desires, whether we're narcissists or not.
A good story, then, is a superstimulus. The very structure of our minds is tilted to be vulnerable to it. It appeals to our primitive brains so strongly that it doesn't matter if it resembles the real world or not - we prefer the engaging story. We're designed to produce narratives, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, our minds also come with the ability to build new processes that can overrule the older ones. So how do we beat it? From "The Black Swan":
There are ways to escape the narrative fallacy...by making conjectures and running experiments, by making testable predictions.
In other words, concentrate your probability mass. Force your beliefs to be falsifiable. Make them pay rent in anticipated experience. All the the things a good rationalist should be doing already.

 

 

Comments (32)

Comment author: Bugle 06 August 2009 02:34:25AM 2 points [-]

But remember like Alan Moore said "The one place where gods exist unquestionably is the human mind". Similarly, narratives are a fact of not just your brain, but that of everyone around you, realizing this can be convenient.

Comment author: DanArmak 06 August 2009 12:22:15AM 2 points [-]

To trot out some theoretical evolutionary support, only extremely basic extrapolation would be required in the ancestral evolutionary environment. [....] Being able to produce simple chains of cause and effect would confer a significant survival advantage, but you wouldn't need anything more than that. The world was simple enough that we didn't have to deal with complex interactions - linear extrapolation was "good enough". The world is much different and much more complex today, but unforunately, we're still stuck with the same linear extrapolation hardware.

The world was simple then because we hadn't evolved greater predictive ability, not the other way around. It's more complex today because humans have used their predictive abilities to build complex tools and social structures. So our extrapolating hardware is correlated with the modern world in two senses: it was enough to build it, and it is enough to presently survive in it.

True, we would profit greatly from better extrapolating hardware. But this was just as true in the ancestral environment! Extrapolation ~~ Intelligence ~~ Power to achieve goals. Also, better hardware gives a particular advantage in intraspecific competition, so once genes (or other replicators) for it appear, they spread rapidly.

Ours is not the narrative of "how humankind barely had enough brains to cope with the modern world". It's the narrative of "how humankind had just a tiny amount of brains more than he needed to cope with his ancestral environment, and used them to build a world so complex that only he could survive in it, to the exclusion of cousin species and of older human genotypes".

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 04 August 2009 05:05:58PM 8 points [-]

Does it help if we think of our lives as a story about the sort of brave truthseeker who knows about the narrative fallacy and constantly reminds herself to make falsifiable predictions? 'Cause that's totally what I do.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 August 2010 03:58:11AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 04 August 2009 07:46:44PM 4 points [-]

I had a co-worker who took Taleb way too seriously. Any time I used the word "because" in the context of market moves, he would condemn me with the phrase "narrative fallacy." Here is a sample dialogue:

him: "how's it going?" me: "the S&Ps are really whipping around because the fed just did a surprise cut." him: "narrative fallacy!!"

He just didn't really get that even though there are a ton of invalid narratives in the financial markets (just turn on CNBC and you hear them non-stop) that doesn't mean that there aren't valid narratives sometimes also.

Comment author: ArthurB 04 August 2009 02:17:57PM *  6 points [-]

It seems to me that a narrative is generally a maximum likelihood explanation behind an event. If you observe two weird events, an explanation that links them is more likely than an explanation that doesn't. That's why causality is such a great explanation mechanism. I don't think making narratives is a bug. The bug is discarding the rest of the probability distribution... we are bad are remembering complex multimodal distributions.

Sometimes, a narrative will even add unnecessary details and it looks like a paradox (the explanation would be more likely without the details). However, the explanation without the detail would be a zone while the explanation with the detail is a point. If we try to remember modes, it makes perfect sense to add the details.

Coming from here, I don't really understand the advice to

"In other words, concentrate your probability mass"

It seems that concentrating the probability mass would reinforce the belief in the most likely explanation which is often a narrative.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 August 2009 04:34:48PM *  2 points [-]

That portion could probably stand to be clarified - at the very least I should provide a link to what I'm referring to: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/technical

The point is to make your explanations have the possibility to increase your knowledge, rather than just satisfy your explanation-itch. If they can equally explain all outcomes, they aren't really explanations.

To use Eliezer's favorite example, phlogiston "feels" like an explanation for why things burn - but it doesn't actually effect what you expect to see happen in the world.

Comment author: ArthurB 04 August 2009 05:52:37PM *  2 points [-]

An explanation cannot increase your knowledge.Your knowledge can only increase by observation. Increasing your knowledge is a decision theory problem (exploration/exploitation for example).

Phlogiston explains why some categories of things burn and some don't. Phlogiston predicts that dry wood will always burn when heated to a certain temperature. Phlogiston explains why different kind of things burn as opposed to sometime burn and sometimes not burn. It explains that if you separate a piece of woods in smaller pieces, every smaller piece will also burn.

To clarify my original point, the problem isn't the narrative. The narrative is a heuristic, it's a method to update from an observation by remembering a simple unimodal distribution centered on the narrative (what I think most likely happened, how confident I am)

Comment author: [deleted] 04 August 2009 07:04:33PM *  1 point [-]

Edited my reply to correct and clarify (though I'll pass on debating the merits of phlogiston theory).

After re-reading your original comment (it took me a while to parse it) I generally agree with your points. In particular I think "The bug is discarding the rest of the probability distribution" is a good way of summarizing the problem, and something I'll be mulling over.

Comment author: mtraven 04 August 2009 06:33:35PM 2 points [-]

Telling yourself that you are struggling to free yourself from narrative is of course itself a narrative. There's no escape.

Although one of the distinguishing things about this community is its willingness to use heroic metaphors for this struggle, imagine themselves as martial artists, etc.

An alternative is to embrace the narrative nature of intelligence. See here for some efforts to do that.

Comment author: Alicorn 04 August 2009 06:36:20PM 4 points [-]

Telling yourself that you are struggling to free yourself from narrative is of course itself a narrative. There's no escape.

And of course there are plenty of narratives about that. Sophie's World, Princess Tutu, 1/0... Of course, sometimes the characters "escape", but...

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 August 2009 01:23:34PM 3 points [-]

A wiki page for the concept: Narrative fallacy.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 04 August 2009 06:10:28PM 1 point [-]

I harp on this one constantly. Ego/signaling is ALL about engineering the narrative.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 04 August 2009 07:13:39AM 3 points [-]

This looks like an important ingredient of the bias cocktail that fuels religions and conspiracy theories.

Comment author: myself 04 August 2009 10:29:10AM *  -2 points [-]

Everything IS connected. Our mind/brain, as part of that connectedness, seems to 'grok' this at a deep level, and strives to express those connections at a conscious level, but with limited success.

A good story?

Comment author: dclayh 04 August 2009 01:20:33AM 6 points [-]

So we're much better at remembering things as part of a pattern than as a random assortment.

Two famously difficult to remember "nonsense" texts:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. "What! No soap?" So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyalies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

and

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labors of men that as a result of the labors unfinished of Testew and Cunnard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished it is established what many deny that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell fades away I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley etc.

Comment author: CronoDAS 04 August 2009 01:43:58AM *  13 points [-]

I couldn't even finish reading the second one.

Contrast this famous piece of nonsense:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand: Long time the manxome foe he sought -- So rested he by the Tumtum tree, And stood awhile in thought

And as in uffish thought he stood, The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

Comment author: scav 04 August 2009 12:39:52PM 6 points [-]

Yes, a constrast indeed. It contains nonsense vocabulary, but it's a perfectly coherent story, so not hard to remember.

Note also, in D&D and probably other related cultures, a "vorpal" weapon has come to mean a magic weapon with a chance of automatically decapitating a foe. And this is pure narrative compression too: in the poem, the hero goes galumphing back with the jabberwock's head after using the vorpal blade to defeat it. The poem doesn't say the jabberwock was killed by decapitation, but it's too easy to join the dots between the snicker -snack and the victorious galumphing, and thus extract an unconscious theory about what it is that "vorpal" blades do.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 05 August 2009 02:06:30AM 4 points [-]

It contains nonsense vocabulary, but it's a perfectly coherent story, so not hard to remember.

Nonsense vocabulary that was also carefully crafted to sound plausible, with echoes of meaning and associations to existing words.

I doubt it's possible to be any more comprehensible than Jabberwocky without using only real words.

Comment author: MBlume 04 August 2009 02:18:33AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for reminding me to reread Godot =)

Comment author: h4nnibal 24 February 2015 06:48:20PM *  0 points [-]

I couldn't really follow this concept. Is it something like doing logistics in the past and then drawing conclusions. or Say something like "Vedic texts predict the exact motion of the planets and eclipse at times devices like telescopes were not even thought of". Hence, vedic period was much advanced than ours.

Am I correct here?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 November 2014 06:10:20PM 0 points [-]

That is probably the reason why The Hero's Journey is so popular in novels and movies.

I also think that one should consider when it's actually worth overriding the narrative fallacy. I would say that it depends on

  1. The likelihood that the narrative is misleading (depending on the source of the story and how much we are fooled by the confirmation bias and wishful thinking)

  2. The importance of the question at hand

No use in making the effort of slow thinking if the narrative is already true or the outcome is irrelevant.

Comment author: jwdink 04 August 2009 05:56:58PM *  0 points [-]

Wonderful post.

Because the brain is a hodge podge of dirty hacks and disconnected units, smoothing over and reinterpreting their behaviors to be part of a consistent whole is necessary to have a unified 'self'. Drescher makes a somewhat related conjecture in "Good and Real", introducing the idea of consciousness as a 'Cartesian Camcorder', a mental module which records and plays back perceptions and outputs from other parts of the brain, in a continuous stream. It's the idea of "I am not the one who thinks my thoughts, I am the one who hears my thoughts", the source of which escapes me. Empirical support of this comes from the experiments of Benjamin Libet, which show that a subconscious electrical processes precede conscious actions - implying that consciousness doesn't engage until after an action has already been decided. If this is in fact how we handle internal information - smoothing out the rough edges to provide some appearance of coherence, it shouldn't be suprising that we tend to handle external information in the same matter.

Even this language, I suspect, is couched in a manner that expresses Cartesian Materialist remnants. One of the most interesting things about Dennett is that he believes in free will, despite his masterful grasp of the disunity of conscious experience and action. This, I think, is because he recognizes an important fact: we have to redefine the conscious self as something spaced out over time and location (in the brain), not as the thing that happens AFTER the preceding neuronal indicators.

But perhaps I'm misinterpreting your diction.

Comment author: ajayjetti 05 August 2009 06:24:12AM -1 points [-]

I don't get you

Comment author: jwdink 05 August 2009 04:58:49PM 0 points [-]

I don't get you

Could you say why?

Comment author: cousin_it 04 August 2009 10:44:44AM 0 points [-]

So, the Last Psychiatrist article says narcissism is maladaptive for men because it makes women fall for them? That's pretty advanced thinking.

Comment author: spriteless 06 August 2009 02:38:40AM *  0 points [-]

what is this i don't even

edit: I mean, he says it's maladaptive in our culture, not it's maladaptive for spreading your alles furthest. Getting a chick versus being able to trust her.

Comment author: cousin_it 06 August 2009 08:28:26AM *  0 points [-]

I can't parse your comment. How does being non-narcissistic help a man trust women?

Comment author: spriteless 06 August 2009 05:47:27PM 3 points [-]

Narcissists only believe in themselves, by Last's definition. Other people are supporting cast and villains in a movie the narcissist stars in. The chick in the movie might leave the hero, either because she was fooled by the villain or is really a villain all along. Unless you see people as having their own identities, you can't know that person well enough to trust them. (Well, I suppose you could use a different world-model than multiple identities, as long as it's more accurate than a personal narrative, but Last doesn't discuss that.)

Comment author: Liron 04 August 2009 03:20:39AM 0 points [-]

This is a particularly great post.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 August 2009 03:30:11AM 0 points [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: teageegeepea 04 August 2009 02:59:09AM 0 points [-]

Hopefully Anonymous prefers the term "pageantry", in reference to Goffman's analogy of social behavior to theater.

Robin Hanson's post "You are a character" seems relevant.

There's a scene in some dumb romantic comedy where the sad leading woman comes across an ex-Hollywood old-timer who tells her she's the leading woman in her life but she's acting like the friend. This, the audience is being told, is the right way to think, as she snaps out of her funk (its possible that there is some ironic result later on in the film where it turns out badly, but I really doubt it).