With perhaps the exception of professional accountants and actuaries, we think in narratives. How we understand important aspects of our lives, such as who we are, the opportunities we have had in life, the decisions we have made, and how our society works is shaped by the narratives we create in our minds. We use stories to make sense of our relationships with other people, of where our future is heading, and to motivate ourselves to keep going. Narratives are powerful, but so are the narrative fallacies that can arise from the way we think.
Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, demonstrates the ways in which our brains take short-cuts, rely on heuristics, and create narratives to understand a complex world. He shows he these thinking strategies can fail us in predictable ways due to biases, illusions, and judgments made on incomplete information. Narrative fallacies can arise from all three of the cognitive errors I just listed. To get more in depth with narrative fallacies, Kahneman writes,
“Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.”
We don’t really know how to judge probabilities, possibilities, and the consequences of things that didn’t happen. We are biased to see agency in people and things when luck was more of a factor than any direct action or individual decision. We are motivated and compelled by stories of the world that simplify the complexity of reality, taking a small slice of the world and turning that into a model to describe how we should live, behave, and relate to others.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, narrative fallacies cannot be avoided. I studied public policy, and one of the frameworks for understanding political decision-making that I think needs far more direct attention is the Narrative Policy Framework which incorporates the idea of Social Constructions of Target Populations from Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram. We understand the outcomes of an event based on how we think about the person or group that were impacted by the consequences of the outcome. A long prison sentence for a person who committed a violent crime is fair and appropriate. A tax break for parents who work full time is also fair and appropriate. In both instances, we think about the person receiving the punishment or reward of a decision, and we judge whether they are deserving of the punishment or reward. We create a narrative to explain why we think the outcomes are fair.
We cannot exist in a large society of millions of people without shared narratives to help us explain and understand our society collectively. We cannot help but create a story about a certain person or group of people, and build a narrative to explain why we think that person or group deserves a certain outcome. No matter what, however, the outcomes will not be rational, they will be biased and contain contradictions. We will judge groups positively or negatively based on stories that may or may not be accurate and complete, and people will face real rewards or punishments due to how we construct our narratives and what biases are built into our stories. We can’t escape this reality because it is how our brains work and how we create a cohesive society, but we can at least step back and admit this is how our brains work, admit that our narratives are subject to biases and are based on incomplete information, and we can decide how we want to move forward with new narratives that will help to unify our societies rather than pit them against each other in damaging competition.