Why Your Narrative is Wrong: How Your Mind Creates Narrative Out of Incomplete Info, then Refuses to Revise It
Your narrative is wrong.
Wait, you say, what do you mean by "narrative"?
Narrative: a story or account of events, experiences, or the like,whether true or fictitious. (Dictonary.com)
Note the last part: whether true or fictitious.
Everybody has a narrative about something. Your last vacation experience that you're telling your friends is a narrative. Campaign speech is a narrative. TV advertisement is a narrative. Your biography is a narrative.
Your narrative is "wrong", in the sense that it is NOT "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Why? There are three reasons:
- Human brain records experiences, not perfect memories, and the more surprising and emotional the experience, the more you remember them.
- Narratives are created out of these experiences by the "interpreter" in your brain, based on your pre-existing experiences, world-view, and biases, (i.e. context).
- Once you created a narrative, you are EXTREMELY reluctant to revise it. Instead, you try to fit new information INTO your existing narrative.
In most cases, this "wrong" narrative is of no real consequence. However, sometimes the "wrong" narrative has devastating consequences, esp. when it involves other people, or money. At other times, it is difficult to choose a "right" narrative, as different people view things from different perspectives.
Experience vs. Memory
You probably think that your memory is like an old-style tape-based camcorder: It records exactly what happened, and the recorded signal fades over time.
You are wrong.
Memory is heavily linked to emotion. That is why emotionally involved events, such as first kiss, birth, death, marriage, surprise, disaster, trauma, and such are remembered with great clarity, while the day-to-day activities are NOT remembered, as they have little to no emotional attachment.
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains this phenomenon with an example: you listen to a great concert: the artist is fantastic, the audio astounding, and you are having a great time for a full hour. Then something happened to the speakers and there was an AWFUL feedback loop causing a very bad screech that lasted about 15 seconds. When the concert was over, all you will likely remember would be that awful screech, not the wonderful concert that preceded it. That screech, a surprise and annoyance, is your primary experience, even though you had a full hour of good concert experience preceding it.
You can view the full TED presentation by Daniel Kahneman on what is the difference between experience and memory.
Cognitive Bias are how your brain behaves in a way that is NOT rational, usually by using "shortcuts" that often generate wrong results.
Cognitive bias is somewhat related to interpreter, as often, interpreter is used to retroactively justify the decision made through cognitive bias.
Interpreter In Your Brain
You probably think that you simply recall the events as you remembered them, like a transcriber.
You are wrong.
Your brain interpreted the experiences you had recorded, based on all the OTHER experiences you had recorded (your existing narrative) and fit them all into your overall narrative. Your recall is affected by your religious, familial, educational, political, and other contexts.
Scientists have identified this interpreter as part of your left brain hemisphere. This was discovered by working with some patients who had their left and right brains separated by surgery (usually to relieve epilepsy). In an example, one patient was shown picture of chicken claw to the right eye only (so it went to the LEFT hemisphere). Then the patient was asked to pick a matching picture, and he picked a chicken. The same experiment was repeated with the same patient, showing picture of a snow scene to the left eye (so the information went to the right hemisphere), and the patient picked a shovel. When asked why the items are picked, the chicken / chicken claw is obvious, but due to the procedure, this patient's "interpreter" left brain hemisphere does NOT know the matching eye had seen a snow scene. Yet it does know a shovel was picked. The patient replied "to shovel chicken manure".
The interpreter CREATED a narrative based on the information available: chicken, and shovel
Your brain does the same thing. You interpret what has happened, as you have seen it, to the best of your own understanding. And you stored the interpretation as your experience.
Problems happen when you made the wrong interpretation (or were mislead into it).
Shoehorning, Confirmation Bias, and Cognitive Dissonance
You probably think that when you receive new information, you examine the information, then make a rational decision on whether to accept or reject it.
You are wrong.
When you receive additional information, you actually deal with this new information in one of several ways:
- It seems to support your narrative -- fit it in. This is known as confirmation bias
- It SORT OF supports your narrative (but really doesn't) -- fit it in any way. This is known as shoehorning.
- It does not support your narrative -- it will be discarded. This is known as cherry-picking
- It does not support your narrative, but it's too true to be discarded -- you now have to live with two CONFLICTING narratives. This is known as cognitive dissonance.
All new information is interpreted based on your existing narrative. When you receive information contrary to your narrative, you protect your narrative by inventing reasons to dismiss / discard. Instead of you examining the evidence and choose to reject it, you had already determined to reject the evidence (because it doesn't fit), THEN you make up a reason to justify your decision.
The first three "solutions" will eventually enhance your narrative to the point where you run into the fourth one: cognitive dissonance. You now have two conflicting ideas, and you need to somehow resolve this conflict, by modifying your narrative... or to discard the information any way.
Harold Camping, a Christian radio preacher, had previously predicted several Doomsdays when God will come back and judge the worthy and take them to Heaven. His Doomsday predictions for May 21st, 2011 did not come true, but he believed it would. He managed to resolve it by claiming that Judgement Day did came, and God did judge all, albeit only in a figurative sense, not the literal sense that he previously claimed. He had managed to resolve the conflict by modifying his narrative. He predicted another Doomsdays for October 21st, 2011, but again, that failed to pass. In March 2012, he announced he will no longer predict Doomsdays.
Propaganda and Con
Propaganda is basically a way to convince you to accept someone else's narrative as your own. Propaganda started as a part of Catholic Church to propagate their faith across the world, convincing non-Christians into accepting the Christian narrative. Now, propaganda is used for ANY sort of narrative, be it political, religious, commercial, or personal (like a resume).
Confidence artists, i.e. con men, i.e. scammers, are out to make you accept their false narrative in order to induce you to give up your money.
If you accept other people's narrative as your own, you will overlay it with your own narrative. However, narratives are NOT 100% accurate. Since your own narrative is not 100% accurate either, by merge the two narratives, you have compounded margin of error. Not only will the narrative be wrong, it will now be even MORE wrong, as you don't know how wrong that other narrative (you have just incorporated) is!
In politics, you have fact-checkers like newspapers, fact-check.org and so on to check how true the political narratives are. Some products and their narratives are checked by organizations like Consumer Reports and other review magazines. However, there are often no such fact-checkers for other areas of life. Thus, you need to develope your own fact-checking system.
Scam: When a Narrative contains outright false info
When a narrative contains outright false info, it is deceptive and fraudulent, and it has serious consequences. Ernest Hemmingway has an even better term for it... Crap.
Not too long ago, Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was forced to resign when it was discovered that his narrative about himself, i.e. his resume, contained some embellishments. His resume claimed he had a computer science degree when he did not. People had taken Thompson's narrative at face value, until one Yahoo shareholder decided to do some fact-checking (then made a huge deal about it).
Bernard Madoff and his Madoff Securities had long presented a narrative where he helped lots of people make money for decades. The narrative turned out to be a cover for the largest Ponzi scheme in US history in terms of monetary amount. Plenty of people have raised questions about some holes in Madoff's narrative, but they were ignored, and the Ponzi scheme was only revealed when Madoff ran out of money.
Zeek Rewards had long presented a narrative that their Zeekler penny auction is making oodles of money and any one can get a share... if they put in money. It turned out to be the largest US Ponzi scheme in terms of victims. Critics of Zeek have pointed out many holes in Zeek's narrative for months, but these were mostly ignored, until the scheme was shut down by the Securities and Exchange Commission on August 16th, 2012.
Different Narratives, Different Perspectives
Your narrative is often created without all the information available. You may also have a different criteria for evaluating the information available and whether to accept or reject the evidence. You also have different backgrounds and knowledge. All that affects your narrative (and perspective). Someone with a different background (and thus, different narrative), will not interpret things the same way, when they encounter the same information.
The following story should illustrate the matter of different narratives:
A girl of 16 has developed a "tic", some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder. There is no good diagnosis. One of her doctors identified the condition as PANDAS, and prescribed antibiotics. After no improvement, the child was moved to a children's hospital, where a different doctor proclaimed PANDAS is not a confirmed condition, and to stop the existing treatment and start a new type of treatment. When the parents refused and want to take the girl elsewhere, the hospital called Child Protective Services, believing that further treatment (the old way) will endanger to the girl's health.
We now have two conflicting narratives:
- Parent's Narrative: We have a sick girl, and the hospital not only refused treatment (done our way), they are trying to take her away from us!
- Hospital's Narrative: We have a sick girl who's not being treated properly (based on what we know), and her parents are endangering her with unproven (and probably useless) treatment, forcing us to act!
Whose narrative are you going to believe? It's not that simple. This is a real case, not a hypothetical one. The main problem here is there is no commonly accepted diagnosis for the girl's condition. PANDAS is not a widely recognized diagnosis, and treatment is therefore purely experimental. It seems that the hospital chose to interpret PANDAS as one type of condition, and try a different type of treatment than what the parents were already doing. Whether this is ethical or moral is going to be debated for a while.
Both narratives are correct to a certain extent... AND wrong to a certain extent. And this is an extreme case, where both narratives hold virtually equal weight and both involved emotional and moral appeal. Most narratives are far LESS ambiguous.
You have a narrative because you need to make sense how the world works. However, narrative cannot be set in stone, but must be subject to revision when new information come along.
Furthermore, when you accept other people's narrative as correct without sufficient fact-checking, you are in danger of accepting all that person's cognitive bias, selective memory, and other problems that formed the narrative, without realizing so. You are also in danger of accepting a false narrative (narrative that contained outright untruths) if you don't do fact-checking.
Beware of your own narrative going way off track, and watch out when you adopt other people's narratives. Learn how to fact check. Remember, sometimes, other people's narratives are just... crap. So keep your crap detector tuned up.