Thursday 15 June 2023

The Problem With Stories

Human minds run on stories, in which things happen for human meaningful reasons. But the actual world is not human centred. It runs on causal processes that are largely indifferent to humans’ feelings about them. 

The great breakthrough in human enlightenment was to develop techniques – empirical science – to allow us to grasp the real complexity of the world and to understand it in terms of the interaction of mindless (or at least unintentional) processes rather than humanly meaningful stories of, say, good vs evil. Hence, for example, the objectively superior neo-Darwinian account of adaptation by natural selection that has officially displaced premodern stories about human-like but bigger (‘God’) agents creating the world for reasons we can make sense of. 

Science flourishes still, demonstrating the possibility for human minds to escape the fairy tale epistemology that we have inhabited for tens of thousands of years and to inquire systematically into the world, or at least to benefit from the work of those who do. Yet - as the evolution example illustrates - stories continue to exert a powerful psychological hold over human minds. The US is one of the most educated societies in the world, but only around a third of adults accept the scientific account of evolution. Despite their deficiencies stories continue to dominate our minds, and hence the world that we build together with our minds via politics. From our thinking on the economy to identity politics to Covid to Climate Change to Climate Change activism, stories continue to blind us to reality and to generate mass conflict and stupidity.

I. What exactly are stories?

Unfortunately the concept of narrative has a tendency to expand to cover almost everything, especially in the hands of humanities scholars seeking to recover the territory they have lost to science over the last few hundred years. Peter Brooks, for example, in his recent ‘Seduced by Story’ (a partial inspiration for this essay) defines narrative so broadly that it includes nearly all ways of understanding what is going on, including scientific theories. However, in his influential ‘Narrative Construction of Reality‘, Jerome Bruner gives a more helpful list of features that characterise and distinguish stories, which I will distill into 3:

  1. A story is a series of events that is meaningful in human terms. People (or things reimagined as people, like Thomas the Tank Engine) act on the basis of reasons: beliefs, values, desires, theories, etc. The resulting outcomes may not be what they wanted, but they are to be interpreted in relation to their intentions.
  2. The logic of narrative cohesion explains particular events in light of the larger story, and the story in light of events (the hermeneutic circle). This makes narratives substantially self-referential since they are assessed by their plausibility (how well they hang together), rather than their verifiability or probe-ability. (The conjunction fallacy is a nice example of this in action: if someone tells you a detail in story, it must be relevant.)
  3. Something surprising must happen, i.e. something that is not ‘supposed’ to happen. However, these surprises are themselves examples of highly conventional and hence predictable story forms. (For example, the Karen story form so familiar from videos shared on social media, in which some middle-aged woman goes off in a rage at an unfortunate retail employee.)

These features of stories distinguish them from other ways of understanding events in the world, especially empirical argument which attempts to systematically test and verify claims against evidence. Let’s now consider the problem with stories.

II. The world is less meaningful than we like to think

The fundamental problem is that the story is our default model of understanding the world, and so we tend to adopt its assumptions about what a good explanation looks like. In particular, we assume that a good explanation of something will be one that is humanly meaningful. Unfortunately many important things are not adequately explained in relation to human intentions and so cannot be grasped in their terms. This includes such obviously non-human related things as evolution and earthquakes, which scientific accounts explain in terms of the interaction of mindless causal processes. These theories are highly successful, but accepting them requires accepting their fundamental premise that these phenomena are meaningless – which many people are reluctant to do.

However, there are also many other important phenomena that would seem to be firmly part of our world, and hence deserving of a humanly meaningful explanation. This includes complex social phenomena like economic inflation, the covid pandemic, and climate change. But although human actions (and hence, ultimately, human intentions) are causally relevant, these phenomena are once again best explained in terms of emergent causal processes. Here too, stories fail as explanations, and also cause us to disbelieve more adequate explanations. Markets, for example, have always been distrusted, partly because it is so hard to tell a good story about the market clearing equilibrium price, and partly because it is so easy to tell misleading but engaging stories about wicked rich actors exploiting honest poor ones (previously).

The story mindset also drives the conspiratorial tendency, of seeking to reduce a frustratingly complicated and ultimately meaningless reality to a simpler and humanly meaningful story of good guys vs bad (with the added attraction for the conspiracy theorist of playing the role of hero in their story). In the case of Covid, for example, many people came to believe that the best explanation of the pandemic (from the perspective of narrative cohesion rather than inductive logic!) was a movie-style plot by governments to install microchips in us. But there was also a much wider, related tendency to politicise the pandemic by inserting ourselves collectively into its story and hence taking back a sense of control. 

Something similar has been happening in the climate change activist movement, whose members seem to have turned to stories after being cognitively and emotionally overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the reality of the problem humanity faces. Fortunately, climate change is much more psychologically manageable in story form : Some wicked companies and their dumb or corrupted political lackeys have been putting their profits above humanity and the world, and they need to be stopped! Moreover, the activists now get to play the role of hero in these fantasy stories by throwing paint around and saying mean things about Shell. 


Finally, even when it comes to our own lives and interpersonal encounters – surely the domain for which the story model evolved – we should better acknowledge the limits of the story model. Just because it is possible to tell a story of our lives as if it made narrative sense forward and backwards (i.e. as if someone had written it), doesn’t mean that is a particularly accurate or helpful thing to do, any more than trying to understand our lives in terms of our astrological sign. Human lives are messy and full of meaningless as well as meaningful events and interactions. We shouldn’t try to tidy away that messiness just because it would make a better story (more here).

III. Politics is ruled by stories

I already mentioned that humans use politics to insert ourselves as actors into the story we have come to believe in. This is possible because politics is a crucial interface between the meaningless but important things that (social) science works to understand, and the meaningful worlds that we humans co-create with stories and other devices. Elected politicians must manage the civil servants who manage or regulate the complicated institutions of modern life, from policing to public health to taxation to pay for all of it. Making this work requires stepping outside the story mindset. However, because politicians must be elected they must successfully communicate with voters, who mostly run on stories rather than arguments.

This puts politicians in a bind. In order to succeed at their jobs – e.g. to carry out their promises to increase prosperity and improve education – they must operate successfully in the real world. But in order to get elected and re-elected, they must compete to tell the best stories, for which competence and facts are often a hindrance. The consequences of this can be dire.

For example, in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum the fact-light but story-focused Leave campaign enjoyed a powerful advantage over the argument-focused Remainers. The resulting political rearrangement included the replacement of more competent and factually oriented government managers by story-tellers from the winning faction, and also the displacement of norms of expertise and competence by story-telling. British governance seems to have declined significantly as a result.

"I think the people of this country have had enough of experts" Michael Gove


Elsewhere, the Economist has identified perhaps 250,000 deaths in the UK (excluding those due to Covid) that could have been prevented by different government choices, particularly the foundational choice of David Cameron’s 2010 government to adopt the ‘austerity story’: the engaging and election-winning story that the previous government had caused the financial crisis by spending too much money. Stories matter. Stories can kill.

III. What is to be done?

"Once upon a time, humans evolved with a propensity to understand the world in terms of stories. This propensity caused various problems leading some to conclude that stories should be replaced by rational explanations whenever possible. The replacement was successful, and humans lived happily ever after." (Aaron Dell, commenting on a previous version of this essay)

The problem with arguing against a mindset so deeply embedded as the story is that it tends to leak back in despite one's best efforts. (As in the case of the poor climate activists, who began in science and fell back into story.) 

Given the limits and quirks of our (haphazardly evolved) human psychology, it is not reasonable to expect much in the way of rational consistency from our own individual minds. But we can certainly try harder not to fall so easily for the attractions of stories when arguments would be better. We can also make more effort to support and consume non-story based analysis in the public sphere. After all, the main device for holding politics accountable and also for reporting scientific analysis to the wider public is journalism, which relies almost entirely on the story form (here is just one amusing case – OK, yes it's a story – of how that can go wrong).


An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily