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.