The convenient narrative

“what kind of stories should we be suspicious of? Again I’m telling you, it’s the stories very often that you like the most, that you find the most rewarding, the most inspiring. The stories that don’t focus on opportunity cost, or the complex unintended consequences of human action. Because that very often does not make for a good story.”

From this Ted Talk by Tyler Cowen.

We use narratives to explain stuff. We need an explanation we can understand and if there isn’t one, we will make one up. And we much prefer to believe stuff that is comfortable for us to believe is true. It goes for all areas of life, not just the ones one like to think about. I’ve picked out a few examples but you’re free to add to the list.

Non-smokers and non-drinkers will generally underestimate how hard it is for people who are drinking or smoking to stop drinking or smoking. The convenient story for the non-smoker or non-drinker is about how people who smoke or drink are weaker people (and therefore less deserving). Or perhaps they are less smart, because they could have just never started in the first place. On the other hand some of the people who smoke or drink a lot like to tell themselves that they are not addicted (because addiction will often imply weakness in the mental model applied to the problem) or that they have just as much willpower as the non-smoker/-drinker has, which would become obvious if the latter also smoke/drank as much as them. Notice that there may be multiple, perhaps conflicting, ways to construct a convenient narrative that makes you look good, not just one; it’s both possible for you as a smoker to convince yourself that you’re not addicted and thus isn’t a weak person (‘only weak people become addicts’), and it’s possible for you to convince yourself that you are addicted, but that the addiction means precisely that you’re not weak ‘because if someone as strong and great as you can become addicted, eveybody can’.

People who are not overweight will generally emphasize the importance of their own actions when explaining why they are not overweight and downplay other factors, whereas people who are overweight will often be more comfortable thinking in terms of factors over which they have little to no influence (like genetics). So the person who is not overweight will end up telling himself a convincing and convenient story about how he’s not overweight because he’s doing all the right things while disregarding other factors that may be quite important too, and by telling the narrative that way he may think of himself as a better person than the people whom he think do not behave the way he does, and/or he may think of himself as a better person than the people who do in fact behave in a similar manner, but have gotten different results from the diet- and exercise regime than he has gotten and thus have ended up overweight. The overweight guy will often tell a completely different story, which is just as compelling and convenient to him as the other story is to the non-overweight guy; he’s overweight because of his genes, because of his metabolism, because of his big bones, or perhaps because of his job that makes it hard for him to find time to exercise. He may think he’s better than the other guy because he works harder (or he would have time to exercise), or he may think he’s better because he does not, he tells himself, judge people by their appearance. The more general story about the blameless victim vs the deserving winner can be applied to all areas of life; if people have done well, it’s always because of stuff they did, and if they haven’t done well, nothing they could have done would have made any difference. That is, this is the story most of them will tell you if you ask them. Because that’s the story they tell themselves, and sometimes have told themselves for many years. (Things get more interesting if people can’t decide if they’ve done well or not.)

Often when people engage in political arguments, they downplay the arguments against the position they are defending. And they like political positions which make them look more deserving, make it look obvious that they should have a larger share of the pie. If reality will not play ball that’s often not a problem in political debates; in politics reality is just what people can agree is true. So when arguing about whether the people I like (‘people (/who) like me’) deserve to be in the position they are in, you can claim ‘it’s because of X’ and as long as a lot of people agree with you then X is considered a valid explanation. Note that the most convenient story always has a bad guy, and that in politics the convenient bad guy is almost always the guy who disagrees with you. Note also that in all the narratives you tell yourself, you’re the good guy. And this is the case for everybody else too.

When people think about what motivations others have for doing the things they do, they will often be tempted to try to explain the behaviour of others in terms of reactions to their own behaviour. They will tend to go for explanations involving them first if they can make one such explanation make them look good. ‘If she’s behaving nicely towards me, it must mean that I’m a nice person’ or ‘she’s behaving that way because I deserve to be well treated’. If it’s hard to come up with such an implicit explanation that makes one look good one will be more likely to find and include ‘external factors’ in the model; if she was angry it was not because of anything I did, rather it was because her boss is a silly old man, or because she’s on her period. This model even works when she explains that her anger is caused by something you did: If she’s told you that her anger was because you didn’t clean the house yesterday, you’re quite likely to at least partially disregard that explanation and find another one that better fits the image of you as the perfect husband; either one that does not involve you at all, or perhaps one that does involve you but also ‘shows’ just how unreasonable she is (‘She is probably still mad about that $300 overcoat I bought without asking her first. I should be allowed to buy an overcoat for myself without asking that crazy lady first, dammit!’). And when people tell themselves such narratives one of the funny things is that they both know that she is right (he should have cleaned the house), but they still hold on to the self-serving explanations in order to justify their own actions though they know that they probably should not do this the partner disapproves of the behaviour. It makes sense though; we’re programmed to constantly look out for subtle ways to do a little less than our ‘fair share’, and you can’t cheat on others as well if you feel really bad about it afterwards and/or if you cannot catch up on the fact that your behaviour might be over the line. Incidentally, chimps have strong views on fairness stuff too.

Now, some of the stories humans made up in the past to explain the stuff we liked to explain back then doesn’t do very well today, when taking all the knowledge that is available to us at this point into account. Stories made up by people who died a long time ago still make up most of the religious texts around today, and you can tell if you read them. But it’s very often inconvenient for religious people to pick a different narrative, it’s in fact often very costly – and once again ‘reality’ is to a great extent just what people around you can agree with you is true. But people without religion do not do without competing convenient narratives; they will probably often tell themselves that they are smarter people for not believing stupid things. Or they will tell themselves that it’s all because of their own actions and ideas that they don’t believe in the stupid narratives, rather than it being to a great extent perhaps just a matter of being born by the right parents in the right century in the right country and being of the right gender (females are generally more likely to be religious than males).

It’s worth mentioning that not all self-serving stories are necessarily untrue or inaccurate. The degree to which such narratives are true or not will often depend upon your own point of view, but this is rather beside the point; the point is that people tell these narratives whether they are true or not, and the accuracy of the narrative often doesn’t much enter the equation in the first place. Sometimes self-serving thoughts like the ones described in the post are not thoughts people actively engage their minds with; often they are not. Rather, they are somehow perhaps best perceived of as part of the OS. The convenient narratives are part of us and there’s no way to get rid of them. But thinking about them every now and then can’t hurt.

August 21, 2012 - Posted by | health, Psychology, rambling nonsense, Random stuff

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