Standard Stories Continued

Standard Stories Continued

“Is there anything wrong with standard stories?” asks Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind. “That depends,” he continues, “on one’s view of their two most striking theoretical commitments, individualism and their psychologism: they focus on a small number of individuals (‘designated actors’) and attribute the outcomes they want to explain to the psychology of these individuals.”
In almost any movie we see (I am particularly thinking about Disney movies here) there is a pretty small cast of characters. There are a handful of main characters who interact and drive the story forward, and then a few surrounding characters like co-workers, cousins, or fellow train passengers who are just in the background and don’t really contribute to the story. Standard stories flatten the world, and relying on them too much to understand our own worlds isn’t realistic because we have so many more people who play prominent roles in our lives, or who play important roles at different times, but are not consistently a main character in the story.
Cassam continues, “standard stories are, in this sense, personal and they have plots like those of a novel or a play. According to structuralism that is the fundamental problem. Because of their focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic psychologies standard stories forget that individuals only exist within complex social structures.” The narratives we create in our own minds and the stories we create for movies and television ignore the complex social structures (or at least fail to directly consider them) that drive a lot of our behavior and psychology. We attribute a great amount of influence and power to individual level decision-making. Specific character traits are elevated, describing and defining everything we need to know about an individual, and the correct set of thoughts and traits is all a character in a standard story needs in order to succeed and reach happily-ever-after. Again, this flattens our reality. The real world has complex social structures, institutions, and systems that are not always transparent, hard to navigate, and can limit many of the decisions in our lives.
Finally, Cassam writes, “what that means is that in many cases it isn’t individuals’ psychologies that explain their actions but the constraints imposed by the structures within which they operate.” Standard stories work well in our Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic  (WEIRD) culture in the United States. It highlights the power and possibility of the individual, elevating our decision-making, our hard-working ethos, and our beliefs that our thoughts and actions are what determine our success or failure in all that we do. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than what we see in standard stories. We become over-reliant on explanations for the world based on individuals and their psychologies, and don’t spend enough time thinking deeply about the structures and systems within which we live. Success in a standard story is incredibly rewarding, after all, it is all about you. However failure in such a story is crushing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the factors that limited your ability and decision-making. Standard stories place any failure entirely within the individual. they are simplified ways to understand the world, but are also inaccurate and leave us with a flattened understanding of what our existence is truly like.
Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.
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.
A Lack of Internal Consistency

A Lack of Internal Consistency

Something I have been trying to keep in mind lately is that our internal beliefs are not as consistent as we might imagine. This is important right now because our recent presidential election has highlighted the divide between many Americans. In most of the circles I am a part of, people cannot imagine how anyone could vote for Donald Trump. Since they see President Trump as contemptible, it is hard for them to separate his negative qualities from the people who may vote for him. All negative aspects of Trump and of the ideas that people see him as representing are heaped onto his voters. The problem however, is that none of us have as much internal consistency between our thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs for any of us to justify characterizing as much as half the country as bigoted, uncaring, selfish, or really any other adjective (except maybe self-interested).

 

I have written a lot recently about the narratives we tell ourselves. It is problematic that the more simplistic a narrative, the more believable and accurate it feels to us. The world is incredibly complicated, and a simplistic story that seems to make sense of it all is almost certainly wrong. Given this, it is worth looking at our ideas and views and trying to identify areas where we have inconsistencies in our thoughts. This helps us tease apart our narratives and recognize where simplistic thinking is leading us to unfound conclusions.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows us how this inconsistency between our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors can arise, using moral ambiguity as an example. He writes, “the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.”

 

It is easy to adopt a moral position against some immoral behavior or attitude, but when we find ourselves in a situation where we are violating that moral position, we find ways to explain our internal inconsistency without directly violating our initial moral stance. We rationalize why our moral beliefs don’t apply to us in a given situation, and we create a story in our minds where there is no inconsistency at all.

 

Once we know that we do this with our own beliefs toward moral behavior, we should recognize that we do this with every area of life. It is completely possible for us to think entirely contradictory things, but to explain away those contradictions in ways that make sense to us, even if it leaves us with incoherent beliefs. And if we do this ourselves, then we should recognize that other people do this as well. So when we see people voting for a candidate and can’t imagine how they could vote for such a candidate, we should assume that they are making internally inconsistent justifications for voting for that candidate. They are creating a narrative in their head where they are making the best possible decision. They may have truly detestable thoughts and opinions, but we should remember that in their minds they are justified and making rational choices.

 

Rather than simply hating people and heaping every negative quality we can onto them. We should pause and ask what factors might be leading them to justify contemptible behavior. We should look for internal inconsistencies and try to help people recognize these areas and move forward more comprehensively. We should see in the negativity in others something we have the same capacity for, and we should try to find more constructive ways to engage with them and help them shift the narrative that justifies their inconsistent thinking.
Ignore Our Ignorance

Ignore Our Ignorance

There is a quote that is attributed to Harry Truman along the lines of, “give me a one-handed economist.” The quote references the frustrations that any key decision-maker might have when faced with challenging and sometimes conflicting information and choices. On the one hand is a decision with a predicted set of outcomes, but on the other hand is another decision or a separate undesirable set of consequences. The quote shows how challenging it is to understand and navigate the world when you have complex and nuanced understandings of what is happening.

 

Living in ignorance actually makes choices and decisions easier – there is no other hand of separate choices, of negative consequences, or different points of view. Ignoring our ignorance is preferable when we live our own narrative constructions, where what we see is all there is, and reality is what we make it to be.

 

Daniel Kahneman writes about this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, and how these narrative fallacies lead to so many of our predictable cognitive errors. He writes, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

 

When I think about Kahneman’s quote, I think about myself upon graduating with a Masters in Public Administration and Policy and my older sister upon her high school graduation. My sister has had strong political views for a very long time, views that she readily adopted as a high school student. Her self-assured profession of her political views which contrasted against the self-assured political views of my parents is part of what sparked an interest in me to study political science and public policy. I wanted to understand how people became so sure of political views that I didn’t fully understand, but which I could see contained multitudes of perspectives, benefits, and costs.

 

At the completion of my degree I felt that I had a strong understanding of the political processes in the United States. I could understand how public policy was shaped and formed, I could describe how people came to hold various points of view and why some people might favor different policies. But what I did not gain was a sense that one particular political approach was necessarily correct or inherently better than any other. So much of our political process is dependent on who stands to benefit, what is in our individual self-interest, and what our true goals happen to be. At the completion of a study of politics, I felt that I knew more than many, but I did not exactly feel that my political opinions were stronger than the political opinions of my sisters when she graduated high school. Her opinions were formed in ignorance (not saying this in a mean way!), and her limited perspective allowed her to be more confident in her opinions than I could be with my detailed and nuanced upstanding of political systems and processes.

 

Our views of the world and how we understand our reality is shaped by the information we absorb and the experiences we have. What you see is all there is, and the narrative you live within will make more sense when you are more ignorant of the complexities of the world around you. Your narrative will be simpler and more coherent since there won’t be other hands to contrast against your opinions, desires, and convictions.
Narratives and Halos

Narratives and Halos

Yesterday I wrote about narrative fallacies and how our brains’ desires to create coherent stories can lead to cognitive errors. One error, which I wrote about previously, is the halo effect, and in some ways it is a direct consequence of narrative thinking. Our brains don’t do well with conflicting information that doesn’t fit a coherent narrative, and the halo effect helps smooth over this problem in our minds.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The halo effect helps keep explanatory narratives simply and coherent by exaggerating the consistency of evaluations; good people do only good things and bad people are all bad.” When we already like someone or consider them a good person the halo effect will simplify other judgments that we might have to make about them. If the person we admire is wearing a particular kind of coat, then we will assume that it is also a coat we should admire. If a person we dislike is engaging in some type of business, then we will assume that business is also bad. Contradictions occur when we see someone we admire wearing clothing we don’t find acceptable or when a person we know to have moral flaws engages in altruistic charity work.

 

Instead of accepting a contradiction in our narrative, creating a more complex story where some people are good in some situations but bad in others, we alter our judgments in other ways to maintain a coherent narrative. The person we like wearing strange clothes is a trend setter, and that must be the new up-and-coming style we should try to emulate. The bad person engaged in charity isn’t really doing the good things for good reasons, rather they are being selfish and trying to show-off through their charity.

 

When we reflect on our thinking and try to be more considerate of the narratives we create, we can see that we fall into traps like the halo effect. What is harder to do, however, is overcome the halo effect and other cognitive errors that simplify our narratives once we have noticed them. It is hard to continually live with conflicting opinions, ideas of people, cities, sports teams, car companies, and shoe brands. It is much easier to adopt a few favorites and believe them to be a good in all ways, rather than to accept that something might be great in some ways, but harmful or disappointing in others.
Narrative Fallacies #NarrativePolicyFramework

Narrative Fallacies

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.
Patterns of Associated Ideas

Patterns of Associated Ideas

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains try to conserve energy by operating on what he calls System 1. The part of our brain that is intuitive, automatic, and makes quick assessments of the world is System 1. It doesn’t require intense focus, it quickly scans our environment, and it simply ignores stimuli that are not crucially important to our survival or the task at hand. System 1 is our low-power resting mode, saving energy so that when we need to, we can activate System 2 for more important mental tasks.

 

Without our conscious recognition, System 1 builds mental mental models of the world that shape the narrative that we use to understand everything that happens around us. It develops simple association and expectations for things like when we eat, what we expect people to look like, and how we expect the world to react when we move through it. Kahneman writes, “as these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

 

It isn’t uncommon for people different people to watch the same TV show, read the same news article, or witness the same event and walk away with completely different interpretations. We might not like a TV show that everyone else loves. We might reach a vastly different conclusion from reading a news article about global warming, and we might interpret the actions or words of another person completely differently. Part of why we don’t all see things the same, Kahneman might argue, is because we have all trained our System 1 in unique ways. We have different patterns of associated ideas that we use to fit information into a comprehensive narrative.

 

If you never have interactions with people who are different than you are, then you might be surprised when people don’t behave the way you expect. When you have a limited background and experience, then your System 1 will develop a pattern of associated ideas that might not generalize to situations that are new for you. How you see and understand the world is in some ways automatic, determined by the pattern of associated ideas that your System 1 has built over the years. It is unique to you, and won’t fit perfectly with the associated ideas that other people develop.

 

We don’t have control over System 1. If we active our System 2, we can start  to influence what factors stand out to System 1, but under normal circumstances, System 1 will move along building the world that fits its experiences and expectations. This works if we want to move through the world on auto-pilot with few new experiences, but if we want to be more engaged in the world and want to better understand the variety of humanity that exists in the world, our System 1 on its own will never be enough, and it will continually let us down.
The End is Always Near

The End is Always Near

The human mind thinks in narratives. Well take in information about the world around us, and we create a story that weaves all of those narratives together in a cohesive manner. The mind creates the reality that it experiences, and it uses narrative to give the story meaning. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories don’t fit the actual world we inhabit very well.

 

One area where the narrative we tell ourselves doesn’t fully match the reality of our lives is with regard to our risk of dying on any given day. As our brains build the narrative of our lives and of who we are, it projects forward into the future of who we will become and the world we will inhabit. My assumption, based on the way I know that I think, is that we project forward a long life with our ending far off in the distant future. I recognize this tendency in myself all the time, and I suspect that even if I do make it to old age, this same tendency will be with me then.  It is hard to imagine that my end is not always going to be far away.

 

The end is always near, however. Or at least, the potential and risk of the end is always near. Our brains believe that we have lots of life left, because that is how the narrative we have crafted in our minds plays out. But the real world doesn’t have to follow the narrative in our minds. The real world is separate from what we think it should be or will be, and it doesn’t much care about how we think about it or understand it (or fail to understand it either).

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times.”

 

It is important to remember that the actual course of our lives could diverge from the narrative path we create at any moment on any day. The possibility of a natural disaster, a clumsy mistake, or the malice of another person resulting in our early departure from life is always greater than zero. This means that whatever narrative we create, however far off death is in the story we tell ourselves, the reality is that the end is always near.

 

The take-away is to make our time meaningful, to be content that we have done our best each day, so that if we die, the narrative we lived out will end with us as a confident, complete individual. This is not an excuse for a YOLO way of life, and it shouldn’t be a reason to bury ourselves in work – effectively enslaving ourselves to a job, a cause, or a relationship. Instead, what we should learn from our always near ending is that we should do our best to fully apply ourselves in a way that meaningfully engages in the world to produce more than our own selfish happiness. We should seek opportunities to live a life where we  can develop a strong and fulfilling narrative that helps to lift up others who are doing the same. The end is always near, so we should make sure we have made of our life a narrative we can be proud of.

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.