We Care About Narratives

We Care About Narratives

I have written a lot about narratives in the last few months. We understand the world via narratives. Scientific discoveries, economic measurements, facts, and statistics don’t mean anything to us in isolation and are not understood by our brains in isolation. Everything that we observe and experience is incorporated into a story, and we care about the narratives that we create.

 

The way we think about ourselves and others is understood through these narratives. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow looks at the ways we think about narratives, and how our narratives influence our thoughts, our behaviors and decisions, and the lenses through which we interpret the world. He writes, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.” We do things to improve our narrative, we work hard to give ourselves a good ending, and we create ideas within the relationships and frames of our lives that give us meaning and purpose for what we do and who we are.

 

From this narrative understanding of the world come two interesting observations from Kahneman that I want to highlight. One is duration neglect, the other is caring for people via caring for their story.

 

“Duration neglect is normal in a story,” writes Kahneman, “and the ending often defines its character.”

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the 23 Marvel movies that are out now), Iron Man is one of the most important characters. He has a huge character arc across the movies, developing from a spoiled billionaire playboy to the sacrificial hero at the end. And it is the ending that defines Tony Stark more than almost anything else across the movies. We forget that many of the villains across the entire saga are a creation of his own hubris, his own short-sightedness, and his own ego. We discount the times he fell short, because in the end he is the hero who saves the universe. Duration neglect kicks in, and we understand Tony by the end of his narrative, a bittersweet goodbye to the Iron Man hero who kicked off the whole movie phenomenon.

 

Of course a comic book movie series exaggerates our relationships to narratives and life. Iron Man and the rest of the characters are larger than life, but nevertheless, they do give us a window to understand how we understand the real world. You want the lives of those around you to end peacefully and you want people to feel fulfilled. You feel sad for the person who died young, before a wedding or before the birth of a child. It doesn’t matter how happy their life was overall, you want their narrative to have the Tony Stark arc, you wanted their narrative to be complete with a perfect ending.

 

And this brings us to the second idea from Kahneman, “caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings.” Stories where someone’s life ends before they could fulfill themselves feel hollow. We understand other people by understanding their story. We rarely think of someone as a generally happy or generally sad person without considering whether their life and their story has been good or bad. We judge the stories of others, and have trouble understanding how someone who is famous, rich, or seems to have a great career could be sad and empty. At the same time, we don’t understand how someone in poverty with few close family members could find happiness. We focus on changing the stories of others, rather than on helping them be happy.

 

We care about narratives and want stories to end well, want people to find meaning in their narratives, and understand and interact with people based on the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives people present to us. Development, time, and individual events mean little compared to the grand arc of a narrative and how it comes to a close. When we help others and try to support them, we are often doing so in a way that is meant to boost both of our narratives.
The Peak-End Rule - Joe Abittan

The Peak-End Rule

Our experiencing self and our remembering self are not the same person. Daniel Kahneman shows this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by gathering survey information from people during unpleasant events and then asking them to recall their subjective experience of the event later. The experiencing self and the remembering self rate the experiences differently.

 

We can see this in our own lives. During the day you may have had a frustrating project to work on, but when you lay down at night and reflect on the day, you might not remember the project being as bad as it felt in the moment. Alternatively, you might sit around all day binging a TV series and really enjoy a lazy relaxing day. However, you might remember the day much differently when you look back at it, no longer appreciating the experience but regretting it.

 

With our brain experiencing and remembering events differently, we are set up for some strange cognitive biases when we reflect on past events and think about how we should behave in the future. The Peak-End Rule is one bias that factors into how we remember events and can influence our future choices.

 

You might expect to rate a poor experience based on how bad the worst moment of the experience was. Say you had to go to a child’s gymnastics routine that you were really dreading. A certain part of the routine may have been all but unbearable to you, but if at the end you found a $20 bill on your way back to the car. Your judgement of the event is going to be influenced by your good luck. Rather than basing your judgement of the show purely on that dreadful routine, or on an average of the whole evening, you are going to find a spot somewhere between the worst moment and the happy moment when you found $20. Its not an average of the whole time, and its not really indicative of your actual experience. A random factor at the end shifted your perspective.

 

In his book Kahneman writes about the Peak-End Rule as “The global retrospective rating predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.” This definition from Kahneman comes after describing a study with participants sticking their hands in icy cold water and subjectively judging the experience later.

 

The peak-end rule is not limited to painful and unpleasant experiences. Instead of a miserable experience, you could have a truly wonderful experience that ends up being remembered somewhat poorly by a momentary blip at the end. Picture a concert that is great, but flops at the end with the speaker system failing. You won’t reflect back on the entirety of the experience as positively as you should simply because a single song at the end was ruined.

 

What we should remember from this is that endings matter a lot. Don’t end your meeting with the bad news, end it with the good news so that people walk out on a positive note. The ending of an experience weighs much more heavily than everything in the middle. The points that matter are the peak (either the best or worst part) and the ending. A great ending can buoy a poor experience while a bad ending can tank a great experience. For company meetings, job interviews, or performances, make sure you bring the ending to a high point to lift the overall level of the subjective experience.

In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.