Humans adore stories. We also love the idea of cause and effect, and that’s why we create narratives to explain and justify the way we are, the things we do and the way we feel. It can be hard to resist creating a neat yet inaccurate backstory for yourself when, as a species, we value storytelling so highly, and because of this, it’s good to be aware of the risks. We don’t always see straight.
Narrative fallacy describes what happens when a person puts a series of circumstances, happenings or life events into a logical order so they can process it more easily. It’s an important function that helps us deal with everyday life. But now and again the linear cause and effect stories we create for ourselves – our narratives – don’t help us make sense of the world, they skew it. Life isn’t actually neat and logical, it’s almost always a muddle.
The thing is, we’re surrounded by so much information our brains are forced to put things in some kind of order to process everything and understand the world. In many ways, our lives make less sense without a strong sense of cause and effect, without a logical pattern. But sometimes this kind of instinctive ordering of the facts causes us to make mistakes.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is a 2007 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former financial trader. It explores the extreme impact that ‘rare and unpredictable outlier events’ have, and our tendency to find simplistic retrospective explanations for them. This is the Black Swan theory, and it taps neatly into narrative fallacy.
As Taleb himself said:
“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.”
So narratives give us deep, emotionally powerful reasons for our understanding of reality. And, dangerously, they can even make us think we can predict the future. If we let it, narrative can lure us into the false belief that cause and effect have been at work, especially when it taps into our deepest beliefs.
Here’s an example. When you think about it, a combination of working hard, supportive parenting, great coaching, being tall, and a natural gift for sport doesn’t make every single person with that background into an international basketball star, any more than simply being adopted turns everyone into a Steve Jobs.
So what are we getting so wrong when narrative fallacy rears its head? We’re completely forgetting to include real-world factors like coincidences, luck, opportunism, and simple good timing. We shorten, simplify and compact our stories and, whenever we re-tell them, we ignore the annoying details that don’t quite fit, the details that would have led, logically, to a different outcome.
So far, so harmless. But things can go very wrong when we start to believe the past lets us predict the future with any accuracy. Some narratives are so popular, so deeply entrenched, they’re harnessed to drive political change. They affect the world’s financial systems, persuade people to make investments, and attract scientific research and funding.
We often let our love of a good story cloud our judgement and mask our rationality. We may have worked so hard and because of all our efforts, we want certain outcomes to be true. If we have huge emotional, time or money investment we are probably more primed to see what we want to see or believe what we want to believe. We look for supporting evidence and don’t see other factors that might say otherwise. This is called cognitive dissonance. It can be a slippery slope at this point as a narrative fallacy is often the way to keep that story going no matter what.
If you think you might be limiting yourself by falling into this narrative fallacy trap, you can learn how to spot fallacies and focus on the facts. Out coaching can help you. We can be a sounding board for you. Drawing you out of that narrative fallacy trap and ensuring you do get your story straight. Contact us