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.
Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

My wife works with families with children with disabilities and one of the things I learned from her is how to ask children to do something. When speaking with an adult, we often use softeners when requesting that the other person do something, but this doesn’t work with children. So while we may say to a colleague, a spouse, or a friend, “can you please XYZ,” or “lets call it a night of bowling after this frame, OK?” these sentences don’t work with children. A child won’t quite grasp the way a softener like “OK” is used and they won’t understand that while you have framed an instruction or request as a question you are not actually asking a question or trying to give someone a choice. If you frame an instruction as a choice the child can reply with “no” and then you as a parent are stuck fighting them.

 

What happens in this situation is that children reject the frame bounding that parents present them with. To get around it, parents need to be either more direct or more creative with how they tell their children to do things. You can create a new frame for your child that they can’t escape by saying, “It is time to get ready for dinner, you can either put away your toys, or you can go set the table.” You frame a choice for the child, and they get to chose which action they are going to take, but in reality both are things you want them to do (my wife says this also works with husbands but I think the evidence is mixed).

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.”

 

The examples I gave with talking to children versus talking to adults helps demonstrate how we passively accept the framing for our decisions. We don’t often pause to reconsider whether we should really purchase an item on sale. The discount that we are saving outweighs the fact that we still face a cost when purchasing the item. Our thinking works this way in office settings, in politics, and on the weekends when we can’t decide if we are going to roll out of bed or not. The frame that is applied to our decisions becomes our reality, even if there are more possibilities out there than what we realize.

 

A child rejecting the framing that a parent provides, or conversely a parent creating new frames to shape a child’s decisions and behaviors demonstrates how easily we can fall into frame-bound thinking and how jarring it can be when reality intrudes on the frames we try to live within. Most of the times we accept the frames presented for us, but there can be huge costs if we just go along with the frames that advertisers, politicians, and other people want us to adopt.
Take the Outside View

Take the Outside View

Taking the outside view is a shorthand and colloquial way to say, think of the base rate of the reference class to which something belongs, and make judgements and predictions from that starting point. Take the outside view is advice from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow for anyone working on a group project, launching a start-up, or considering an investment with a particular company. It is easy to take the inside view, where everything seems predictable and success feels certain. However, it is often better for long-term success to take the outside view.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “people who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.” He writes this after discussing a group project he worked on where he and others made an attempt to estimate the time necessary to complete the project and the obstacles and hurdles they should expect along the way. For everyone involved, the barriers and likelihood of being derailed and slowed down seemed minimal, but Kahneman asked the group what to expect based on the typical experience of similar projects. The outlook was much more grim when viewed from the outside perspective, and helped the group better anticipate challenges they could face and set more reasonable timelines and work processes.

 

Kahneman continues, “when forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.”

 

Taking the outside view helps us get beyond delusional optimism. It helps us make better expectations about how long a project will take, what rate of return we should expect, and what the risks really look like. It is like getting a medical second opinion, to ensure that your doctor isn’t missing anything and to ensure they are following the most up-to-date practices. Taking the outside view shifts our base rate, anchors us to a reality that is more reflective of the world we live in, and helps us prepare for challenges that we would otherwise overlook.
On Travel as a Cure for Discontent - Joe Abittan

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Does travel help us be more happy? Seneca did not think it did. In Letters From a Stoic, he included a quote from Socrates, “Why do you wonder that glob-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

 

Seneca writes that escapism is not a path toward happiness. We must focus on ourselves and use self-awareness, Seneca would argue, to become happy with ourselves and our situations wherever we may be. If we cannot be happy as ourselves and with one given situation, then how can physically moving ourselves from one place to another increase our happiness? We will still be ourselves, with all the same troubles that created our discontent where we initially were. On travel as a cure for discontent, Seneca saw little promise.

 

His letter continued, “What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? it is because you flee along with yourself.”

 

In a narrow sense, Seneca is correct. We bring baggage with us when we travel. We bring baggage in the form of our actual luggage, the stuff we bring to present ourselves to the outside world and to make the environment we find ourselves in a little more familiar. Simultaneously, we bring mental baggage in the form of thoughts, fears, expectations, and anything in our mind when we left the place we were at. We are still ourselves and a simple transplantation cannot solve deeply held fears, anxieties, habits, or behaviors.

 

But even before a global pandemic (I originally highlighted and read these quotes in June of 2019), I recognized that Seneca’s thinking on travel is too narrow and misses an important point. Travel changes our perspectives, disrupts the routine thoughts that occupy our minds, and can serve as a temporal break to allow us to make a change in who we are and what we do. Colin Wright describes it this way in his book Come Back Frayed, “Travel frays. Not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over and over again.”

 

It doesn’t matter what (or who) we bring with us when we travel. The journey changes us, alters us physically and mentally, shifts perspectives, and interrupts our experience of the passage of time. Our voyage is not useless if we can use the self-awareness that Seneca prescribes to help us see how travel is changing us and to take away important lessons from where we go. Happiness can be found in travel because we don’t just take ourselves with us, we don’t just flee and escape ourselves and our spot on earth, we literally fray apart who we were, and loosen and tighten the structures which bind ourselves over and over. In the end, travel changes us, and that can help us find new avenues toward happiness.

Take a Close Look at What Feels Right

A topic I am fascinated by and plan to dig into in the future is motivated reasoning. We are great at finding all of the reasons and examples for why the things we do are overwhelmingly good and justified, while finding all the flaws in the people and things we dislike. Our brains seems to be wired to tell us that what benefits us is inherently good for the world while things that harm us are inherently evil. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “What feels, to each of you, overwhelmingly right and undeniably true is often suspiciously self-serving, and if nothing else, it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on your brain’s willingness to distort things for your benefit.” This is the essence of motivated reasoning, and we often don’t even realize we are doing it.

 

We each have a particular view of the world that feels like it is foolproof. We have our own experiences and knowledge, and the way we see the world comes out of those factors. It will always feel right to us because it is directly dependent on the inputs we observe, recognize, and cognitively arrange. But, we should be able to recognize that the worldview that we hold will always be an incomplete and ineffective model. We can’t have all of the experiences in the world and we can’t know all of the information about the universe. We will always have a flaw in our opinion because we can’t have a perfect and all encompassing perspective. There will always be gaps and there will always be inaccuracies.

 

When we train ourselves to remember the reality that we don’t have all the information and all the background experiences necessary to fully understand the world, we can start to approach our own thoughts and opinions with more skepticism. It is easy to be skeptical of the out of date baby boomer advice you received and it is easy to discount the political views of someone in the other party, but it is much harder to discount something that feels overwhelmingly accurate to yourself but might be wrong or only marginal, especially if you stand to benefit in one way or another.

 

At the end of the day we likely will have to make some type of decision related to our incomplete and inaccurate worldview. Even if we step back and observe what is going through our mind and where we might have blind-spots, we may find that we reach the same conclusion. That is perfectly fine, as long as we understand where we may be wrong and work to improve our understanding in that area. Or, we might acknowledge that we don’t know it all and be willing to accept some type of compromise that might slightly diminish our self-interest but still hold true to the underlying value at the heart of our decision. This is likely the only way our fractured societies can move forward. We must admit we can’t know it all and we must be willing to admit that sometimes we act out of self-interest in favor of our own personal values rather than acting based on immutable truths. From there we can start to find areas where it makes sense for us to give up a small piece and be willing to experiment with something new. A disposition toward this type of thinking can help us actually develop and make real progress toward a better world.

Observation

A couple years ago, one of my good friends wrote a book called Vector Rising under the pen name Cole Carver. The book is a science fiction thriller about a character who is able to see a little bit ahead of normal people. The idea for Carver stemmed from the science behind the way the brain processes motion and images. By the time an image has made its way from the source, through our eyes, and into our head, we are seeing a little bit into the past. We see just a fraction into the past, not a huge amount but a real amount, and our brains make up for this by predicting what is going on around us, especially with any movement, and using that prediction to create what we see.

 

A line from the book reads, “While science depends on experimentation, I’m here today to talk to you about a different core element: observation. If you recall, it’s the first step in our most sacred methodology. Before we make our guesses and r un our tests, we must first figure out what it is we see.” This was dialogue from one character to another, but I think it is actually a great point for all of us in our lives. We assume we know what it is we see around us and we believe the things we observe about the world, but frequently what we see really isn’t really what is happening. Biases can creep into the way we interpret certain events, we can mis-remember things that took place (or didn’t take place), and we can see a dress as a different color than what it really is. Our observations are not always as good as we would believe, and it is important that we think critically about what we see and try to gain as many perspectives on important things as possible.

 

If we start running through the world too quickly and are in too much of a hurry to trust our observations, we risk making mistakes that can have real world consequences. We may see ourselves as infallible and as deserving a new car, a promotion, or a super hot spouse. Our observation is only on the amazing parts of who we are because we have chosen to be blind to reality by hiding away our faults. The guesses we derive from our false sense of self can lead us to make arrogant decisions and to behave in ways that put down other people. This is dangerous not just for ourselves, but for the people we may interact with as well.

 

Ultimately, we should spend less time assuming that we know the world based on what we see, and more time trying to understand if what we see is an accurate reflection of the world. We should be quicker to assume that we don’t see the whole picture, and spend more time trying to broaden our field of view and less time trying to perform experiments that confirm our guesses. Instead of being so certain that we see the world the right way, we should ask others how our views fall short, and we should adjust them to have better observations of what is really taking place in the world.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.

A Creative Skill

When I sat down to read Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, I expected to hear about the importance of compassion and humility and to read anecdotes about why we should try to avoid self-aggrandizement, but I didn’t expect to get a quick lesson in creativity. Holiday includes a short section in which he describes leaders taking a moment of solitude, away from the societies, groups, and lives that they lead to and connects the creativity these temporary retreats generate back to our egos. What we get when we set off into a quite place away from society, Holiday suggests, is a chance to calm the ego and step away from the need for praise.

 

Holiday writes the following about what happens when we get away from society and our daily lives, “By removing the ego – even temporarily – we can access what’s left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.”

 

The ego, he says, narrows our views and focus. It zooms our attention in on ourselves, ignores the outside world, cuts out the things we are not very familiar with, shortens our the timescales we think through, and ultimately makes us less creative. When everything is about us, we operate with only one true perspective shaping our lives. We will constantly ask the world what has the greatest return for me in this very moment and what will get me the most attention right now?

 

Holiday continues, “Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.” One of the things I wrote about earlier is the way that living for our ego makes us see the world through a modified lens where everything is about us. We don’t see reality clearly and instead create a story all about what we have, what we can gain, what we think others are stealing from us, and what we might lose or miss out on if we don’t spend every moment maximizing for ourselves. This creates a trap where we fail to see the flaws in our plans and fail to see trends that don’t align with what we want to see. Being humble on the other hand and accepting that we need help seeing beyond ourselves, will open our perspective and allow other people to give us information that will expand our perspective. Thinking creatively is difficult when you think you already have all the answers and already see things as creatively as possible. The ego doesn’t see a need to expand its already awesome point of view and likely actively hides perspectives that are critical of what we do and produce. If, on the other hand, we can push the ego aside and move forward in a way that is not all about us, we can see new opportunities, new connections, and new possibilities that we previously would have missed.

Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.