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.
System 1 Success

System 1 Success

“The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create.”

 

Daniel Kahneman writes that in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when discussing the quick conclusions of our System 1, the mental processing part of our brain that is fast, intuitive, and operates based on simple associations and heuristics.

 

System 1 stitches together a picture of the world and environment around us with incomplete information. It makes assumptions and quick estimates about what we are seeing and compiles a coherent story for us. And what is important for System 1 is that the story be coherent, not that the story be accurate.

 

System 2, the part of our brain which is more rational, calculating, and slower, is the part of the brain that is required for making detailed assessments on the information that System 1 takes in. But normally we don’t activate System 2 unless we really need to. If we judge that System 1 is making coherent connections and associations, then we don’t give it more attention and scrutiny from System 2.

 

It is important that we understand this about our minds. We can go about acting intuitively and believing that our simple narrative is correct, but we risk believing our own thoughts simply because they feel true and coherent to us and in line with our past experiences. Our thoughts will necessarily be inadequate, however, to fully encompass the reality around us. Other people will have different backgrounds, different histories, and different narratives knitted together in their own minds. It’s important that we find a way to engage System 2 when the stakes are high to make more thoughtful considerations than System 1 can generate. Simply because a narrative feels intuitively correct doesn’t mean that it accurately reflects the world around us, or creates a picture of the world that will work within the narrative frameworks that other people create.
Luck & Stories of Success

Luck & Stories of Success

There are some factors within individual control that influence success. Hard work is clearly important, good decision-making is important, and an ability to cooperate and work well with others is also important for success. But none of these factors on their own are sufficient for success, at least many prominent thinkers and researchers seem to agree that they are not sufficient. One very successful researcher who would agree that these character, personality, or individual traits are not enough is Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning professor from Princeton.

 

Kahneman’s research, the portion which won him the Nobel Prize was conducted with Amos Tversky, was incredibly successful and influential within psychology and economics. But remembering the lessons he learned from his own research, Kahneman writes the following about his academic journey and the studies he shares in his book:

 

“A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. Our story was no exception.”

 

In anything we do, a certain amount of luck is necessary for any level of success, and much of that luck is beyond our control. Some songs really take off and become major hits, even if the song is objectively not as catchy or as good as other songs (is there any other way to explain Gangnam Style?). Sometimes a mention by a celebrity or already famous author can ignite the popularity of another writer, and sometimes a good referral can help jump-start the popularity of a restaurant. We can work hard, put our best product forward, and make smart choices, but the level of success we achieve can sometimes be as random as the right person telling another right person about what we are doing.

 

Timing, connections, and fortunate births are all luck factors that we don’t control, but that can hugely influence our stories. Being born without a disability or costly medical condition can allow you to save for a rainy day. Being born in a country with functioning roads and postal services can allow you to embark on a new business venture. And happening to have a neighbor who knows some body who can help your kid get into a good college can allow your child and family to move up in ways that might have otherwise been impossible.

 

There are certain things we can do to prepare ourselves to take advantage of good luck, but we need to recognize how important luck is. We have to acknowledge it and remember that our stories are full of luck, and that not everyone has a story with as equally good luck as we do. We can’t assume that our success was all due to factors relating to our good personal traits and habits (a cognitive error that Kahneman discusses in his book). To fully understand the world, we have to look at it objectively, and that requires that we think critically and honestly about the good luck we have had.

Buying Experiences

I’m not big into materialism and I notice a lot of problems in trying to purchase ever greater and more expensive things. I’m one of those people who would probably repeat the trite line of “I’d rather buy an experience than a thing” or “I want to use my money to purchase memories and things that will stick with me rather than things that wear out.” What I need to remind myself, however, is that purchasing experiences over material objects does not remove me from the human drive to use our purchases to show off.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about making experience purchases. Part of why we make these purchases is to enjoy a new experience, see something new, and get away to make new memories as we claim, but part is about something else. “Buying experiences also allows us to demonstrate qualities that we can’t signal as easily with material goods, such as having a sense of adventure or being open to new experiences,” the authors write.

 

Our experience purchases never happen in a vacuum. We come back from Hawaii with a great tan. We post pictures of the waterfall at the top of our hike on social media. We tell our friends and coworkers about the great meals and the amazing show that we went to. Our experiences don’t stay in the place we visited (sorry Vegas!), and in some ways, that is the point. Part of why we go on vacations, sign up for running events, take fishing trips, or visit the big city is so that we can have new stories to tell when we get back. This is part of the appeal and part of the value of our journeys.

 

This makes sense to me when I think about how we evolved. Even for those of our ancestors who were more predisposed to be home bodies taking care of the local tribal and group needs, a journey away could provide new insights and stories for others. Possibly a warning of traveling away, possibly of news of something new that might be on its way, and possibly just stories about something different. These tales and stories could help build group cohesion as a whole, and could help the story teller rise in terms of social status in the group to pass on their genes.

 

In the world today we should remember this. When we take a trip, we should consider our desire for sharing every detail, and we should consider whether we are sharing for others or for our own gain. We might still brag a bit about where we went, but we should do so with a conscious understanding of what we are doing, rather than denying our (potentially) true motives.

The Undisguised Consciousness

“The unreal disguise of consciousness serves only to emphasize to me the existence of the undisguised unconsciousness.” Fernando Pessoa wrote this in The Book of Disquiet as he reflected on the way that people thought about and moved through the world around him. What Pessoa noted is that we act and behave as though we are consciously making decisions and guiding our lives while in reality we are often driven by unconscious forces that we are not aware of. For Pessoa, life was an every day struggle. He did not live in desolate poverty or have anything particular terrible happening in his life, but was cognizant of the stories people told about their lives and existence, and he could not bring himself to believe any particular story.

 

It seems like most people, most of the time, are not actually that considerate of the world around them. If we all were more considerate, capitalism would not be elevated in the United States to a quasi-religious stance. We would be able to take action on climate change. We probably would spend less time watching what celebrities were doing, and more time participating in a sport rather than watching and talking about other people playing a sport.

 

“Occasional hints that they might be deluding themselves–that and only that is what most men experience.”

 

I have been thinking about consciousness and our experiences quite a bit lately. In Considerations, Colin Wright encouraged us to think more deeply about world, and to see things beyond our initial reaction. Rob Reid has talked to guests in his podcast After On about the reality that our brains don’t sense the world as fully as they potentially could. There are senses we just don’t have that we observe in other living creatures. And in The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which being deluded about reality can be an evolutionary advantage for us.

 

Most people that I meet don’t seem to be interested in thinking beyond their initial reaction to the world. Most people don’t really seem to consider the fact that they have a narrow band of senses through which they can experience the world. And most people don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we evolved to have an inaccurate picture of the universe because it helped us be socially deceptive. But I think it is powerful and important that we recognize how much is going on beyond the recognition of our conscious self. We should strive to have a full existence that helps encourage flourishing for others as well as for ourselves. We should strive to see reality for what it is, and cut through the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell for us. The more considerate we are, the more we can open others to the same reality, and hopefully start to counteract the unconscious immediacy of our reactions to the world which is encouraged by social media and indeed by our brains’ very nature.

Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Crafting Stories

Our brains are awesome at pattern recognition. It helps us drive down the freeway and know when traffic is going to come to a stop, it helps us identify fresh bananas and avoid overly ripe ones, and it gives us the ability to do complex mathematics. The brain evolved to recognize and identify patterns in nature so that we could adapt and adjust to the world around us and live in societies with other people and their pattern recognizing brains.

 

Today however, our brains’ pattern recognition can get us in trouble. In our daily lives we encounter a lot of randomness. We have a lot of experiences and face a lot of situations that truly don’t have any meaning behind them, but just happened to happen. Whether it was our toast getting knocked off the counter, seeming to hit every red light on our way to work, or someone not texting us back, we have a lot of daily experiences that our brain will attempt to find patterns between to find meaning where there isn’t any (or at least isn’t any substantial meaning).  Being aware of our brain’s pattern recognition engine and its desire to create a story between random events is important if we want to be able to react to the world in a reasonable way and to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about the danger of creating unrealistic stories from the standpoint of our own egos in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story – and turns us into caricatures…” Holiday was writing about the way we look at success in the lives of other people and the way we think about where we are going and how we have gotten to where we are today. We often see a clear path looking backward that really didn’t exist when the journey began. We likely fail to see the doubt, the uncertainty, and the luck that just happened to bounce along and open a new path for ourselves or someone else. We create a narrative that highlights our good decisions, downplays our errors, and makes our journey through life seem like an inevitable trajectory and not like a rocky forest path that just happened to wind up where it did and not someplace else.

 

Its likely that none of us will stop telling our life in the form of a story or that we will ever be able to turn our brain’s pattern recognition engine off to stop the stories, but we need to be aware of the fact that we do this. Our perceptions of the world will always be limited, which means the stories we tell will never truly represent the reality of the world around us. We also have strong incentives to tell a story that gives meaning to things without any meaning, like the person who cut us off on the freeway leading to the accident was clearly an immoral person who victimized me, the innocent and pure driver who didn’t deserve such misfortune. Our stories will also likely create positive groups that we belong to and out-groups that are somehow less virtuous than our group. Our stories will feature us as prime actors driving our life forward, when we know that sometimes we just bump into good fortune or receive an opportunity without truly doing anything to deserve the opportunity. Ultimately, our stories are likely to be tools to inflate our ego and our status, are likely to jumble together patterns that the brain perceived from nothing, and to include only slivers of reality from our singular perspective. The stories are not real, so we should question them and be aware of when we are trying to make decisions based on the story of our lives that we tell ourselves.