Even True Stories Are Fairy Tales

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Even True Stories Are Fairy Tales

Story Bias

Life is a muddle, as intricate as a Gordian knot. Imagine an invisible Martian decides to follow you around with an equally invisible notebook, recording what you do, think, and dream. The rundown of your life would consist of entries such as “drank coffee, two sugars,” “stepped on a thumbtack and swore like a sailor,” “dreamed that I kissed the neighbor,” “booked vacation, Maldives, now nearly out of money,” “found hair sticking out of ear, plucked it right away,” and so on. We like to knit this jumble of details into a neat story. We want our lives to form a pattern that can be easily followed. Many call this guiding principle “meaning.” If our story advances evenly over the years, we refer to it as “identity.” “We try on stories as we try on clothes,” said Max Frisch, a famous Swiss novelist.

We do the same with world history, shaping the details into a consistent story. Suddenly we “understand” certain things, for example, why the Treaty of Versailles led to the Second World War, or why Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policy created the collapse of Lehman Brothers. We comprehend why the Iron Curtain had to fall or why Harry Potter became a bestseller. Here, we speak about “understanding,” but these things cannot be understood in the traditional sense. We simply build the meaning into them afterward. Stories are dubious entities. They simplify and distort reality and filter things that don’t fit. But apparently we cannot do without them. Why remains unclear. What is clear is that people first used stories to explain the world, before they began to think scientifically, making mythology older than philosophy. This has led to the story bias.

In the media, story bias rages like wildfire. For example: A car is driving over a bridge when the structure suddenly collapses. What do we read the next day? We hear the tale of the unlucky driver, where he came from, and where he was going. We read his biography: born somewhere, grew up somewhere else, earned a living as something. If he survives and can give interviews, we hear exactly how it felt when the bridge came crashing down. The absurd thing: Not one of these stories explains the underlying cause of the accident. Skip past the driver’s account—and consider the bridge’s construction: Where was the weak point? Was it fatigue? If not, was the bridge damaged? If so, by what? Was a proper design even used? Where are there other bridges of the same design? The problem with all these questions is that, though valid, they just don’t make for a good yarn. Stories attract us; abstract details repel us. Consequently, entertaining side issues and backstories are prioritized over relevant facts. (On the upside, if it were not for this, we would be stuck with only nonfiction books.)

Here are two stories from the English novelist E. M. Forster. Which one would you remember better? (a) “The king died, and the queen died.” (b) “The king died, and the queen died of grief.” Most people will retain the second story more easily. Here, the two deaths don’t just take place successively; they are emotionally linked. Story A is a factual report, but story B has “meaning.” According to information theory, we should be able to hold on to A better: It is shorter. But our brains don’t work that way.

Advertisers have learned to capitalize on this, too. Instead of focusing on an item’s benefits, they create a story around it. Objectively speaking, narratives are irrelevant. But still we find them irresistible. Google illustrated this masterfully in its Super Bowl commercial from 2010, “Google Parisian Love.” Take a look at it on YouTube.

From our own life stories to global events, we shape everything into meaningful stories. Doing so distorts reality and affects the quality of our decisions, but there is a remedy: Pick these apart. Ask yourself: What are they trying to hide? Visit the library and spend half a day reading old newspapers. You will see that events that today look connected weren’t so at the time. To experience the effect once more, try to view your life story out of context. Dig into your old journals and notes, and you’ll see that your life has not followed a straight line leading to today, but has been a series of unplanned, unconnected events and experiences, as we will see in the next chapter.

Whenever you hear a story, ask yourself: Who is the sender, what are his intentions, and what did he hide under the rug? The omitted elements might not be of relevance. But, then again, they might be even more relevant than the elements featured in the story, such as when “explaining” a financial crisis or the “cause” of war. The real issue with stories: They give us a false sense of understanding, which inevitably leads us to take bigger risks and urges us to take a stroll on thin ice.