Saturday, May 3, 2014

Life Isn't a Story: The Narrative Fallacy



I noticed something familiar at the very top of an important list.  Author and designer, Frank Chimero, published a post on New Years Day entitled Some Lessons I Learned in 2013.  The number one lesson here is "life isn't a story."  But seeing as this blog isn't life, here's a true story.

The True Story:
One late December evening in 2013, I was shuttling Frank around Brooklyn in my brand new but beat up car.  The winter was pretty rough in NYC and my car was literally weathered.  Unfortunately, it wasn't only a trying winter, but a trying year.  As such, we were discussing how not to handle hardship.  Frank said something along the lines of "I know that creating a story out of life messes people up.  But I don't know why.  Tara, you're a psychologist and you've probably thought much more about this.  Why is it that making life into a narrative isn't helpful?"  Frank was in for an earful, a blog post, and a birthday present.

I immediately conjured up a label for the phenomenon Frank was describing, "the narrative bias."  My next thought was "hm, maybe I'm the first person to think up this term... wouldn't that be cool?"  Five months later, I finally got around to looking into it.  So today, which is Frank's birthday, I did a Google search for "narrative bias."  Then it happened: I learned that someone I've actually met beat me to the punch!  He's not even a psychologist.  His name is Nassim Taleb.  He wrote a book called The Black Swan.  And no, not the one about the ballet dancer, but the one about improbable events (how relevant).  Anyhow, I was introduced to Taleb while dining at Naya, a swanky Lebanese restaurant in midtown, with a friend of mine who is a professor of aerospace engineering (or as we laypeople call it, "rocket science").  But the events of that night are a whole other story!

The Narrative Fallacy:
Much to my dismay, Taleb more astutely coined this concept as "the narrative fallacy."

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.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

The Story I Told You:
Clearly, humans are verbal animals who are naturally inclined to connect series of events into a narrative.  I've already done it here.  First, I introduced you to Frank.  In case you missed it, I very intentionally called him an "author," not a "writer."  Anyone can be a writer, not everyone can be an author.  Next, I included a link to Frank's Twitter page so that you might happen across the fact that he has quite a following.  All of a sudden, this story is a bit more interesting.  You were already being sold a story before it was told.  Next, I'm officially telling you a story about how Frank and I are palling around BK.  For some artistic flare, I made an uncharacteristic attempt at a harsh-winter-and-personal-hardship metaphor.  We were talking about serious stuff.  But wouldn't ya know it, today is Frank's birthday!  There's levity promised.  But wait, what's his birthday present?  Perhaps you, the reader, will have a voyeuristic opportunity to peek in on a slice of this friendship.  Then, depending on your opinion, another entertaining stunt or cheap trick was pulled.  I told you how a real-life rocket scientist introduced me to Nassim Taleb, the guy who created a better term than the one I was trying to coin with this blog post [It's a letdown.  Maybe you wanted me to be the first because you're reading a story about it.]  Name drop, plop.  But hey... were you interested?  Did it work?  Maybe, maybe not.

The Story I Told Myself:
It doesn't matter if it worked.  Because now you see, the problem is this: in the process of attempting to entertain you with a story, I was telling myself a story.  Reflecting on the company I keep, I'm now starting to liken my life to Midnight in Paris even though it's 8pm in Brooklyn.  Nevertheless, I'm sitting here in the same neighborhood that my friend's mom said "it wasn't worth the risk" to come visit me in, and I'm really starting to consider myself a New York City intellectual.  Spilling coffee on my socks this morning seems like a distant memory.  The fact that I befriended the professor while working a 12 hour shift at a cigar bar cleaning ashtrays is totally lost.  Instead, I start to bet that the reader thinks the professor and I became friends at something like a highly secretive Freemason meeting... that allows women.  Perfect.  The professor and I are practically Freemasons anyhow, right?

Wrap-up:
In short, writing a two paragraph story has made me a delusional egomaniac.  It appears that stringing completely factual events together into a story has a side effect: myopic viewpoint.  A story - whether it be funny or sad -is interesting.  A story is easy to remember.  But when we remember a story, we lose the real richness of our actual experience.  Our balance is lost.  The altered photograph becomes the memory.

Frank, I hope that my attempt at storytelling and delusions have helped illustrate why creating a narrative out of life messes people up.  Anyhow, I need to jet.  Phone call with the Pope!
P.S. Happy birthday.

-Tara





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