Let me begin by being clear about what I mean by a “narrative” to dispel any confusion that might exist by the many definitions that exist. In my definition, a narrative is a story that connects events into a causal chain by attempting to fill in the missing links. “The water froze because it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit,” is not a narrative as there is no missing link in that chain — the rules of thermodynamics are the causal mechanism that connects the events; water freezes under 32 degrees and nothing more needs to be explained. “Bitcoin slumps 6% as a new Covid-19 strain upsets wider markets,” however is a narrative. It attempts to explain WHY Bitcoin price went down with a fact by assuming a relationship between the two — specifically, a causal relationship. Headlines are ripe with narratives, and they are both the most salient features of many news articles and the most pernicious forms of misinformation. If you want to see how narratives grab people, read the headlines of any major news organization, and you’ll see that it’s not in the news story but in the headline that narratives are most prevalent. The “news” is often just a narrative, clothed in a few facts to make it look like it has substance. As we have seen over the past few months, narratives are not just prevalent in the news, but they insinuate themselves into the very fabric of our social media feeds and internet experience.
To be clear, not all narratives are false or harmful; some are true and serve a purpose. The narrative that “the sun rises in the east every morning” is clearly true, and is useful information for understanding the arrangement of our planet’s inhabitants with regard to that star. Similarly, there are narratives that are true and useful in the way we navigate social groups. For example, if you want to be successful at your job, it might be important to have other people like you. A narrative that provides a causal relationship between being liked and getting ahead might help you in your career. The problem comes when narratives are constructed from incomplete or incorrect information. The purpose of this article is to identify reasons that we listen to and believe narratives regardless of the veracity of their content.
While there are many reasons, I’ve identified 3 that I think are the most compelling: Compression of Abstractions, System 1 Processing and Appeal to Agency. This is not an exhaustive list, but I think they are the most important. I will describe each in turn and then explain how they interact with one another to create a perfect storm of narrative susceptibility.
Compression of Abstractions
Attention is an incredibly limited resource in the human brain, in fact, I’d argue that it’s the MOST limited resource that we have. The ability to singularly focus your thoughts on a particular thing is a cognitive ability that requires substantial neural real estate — so it should come as no surprise that the ability to reflect and reason with high-abstraction comes at a cost. Abstractions are compression algorithms for our world, they take vast amounts of information and condense them into more easily consumable bites. For example, the word “cat” compresses the vastly complex field of feline characteristics into a single word in order to make them easier to recall, discuss and contemplate.
Attention is the only resource that we have that can be used to make decisions, and because of this, we must choose how to spend it wisely. As such, our brain has evolved a number of mechanisms to help us spend our attention wisely, and one of these is the ability to abstract away details that aren’t immediately relevant. When it comes to non-physical phenomena, things become a little trickier because abstractions aren’t enough. Abstractions are incredibly useful for the physical world — we can ignore every single blade of grass when we are looking at a field because they do not matter to us at that moment. But abstractions alone don’t work as well for the social world, where context matters more than it does in the physical world and where people can overcome abstraction by providing more details. This is one of the reasons that we have language — to help us compress our thoughts into a single summary that can be used to communicate with others. A narrative is a convenient method of abstraction, which is why they are so prevalent in human society. Like the blade of grass versus the green field, a narrative has the power to strip away the details that do not matter and leave only the core of what is important.
Many pithy phrases and aphorisms are simply narratives done more concisely. Consider that a “picture is worth thousand words,” is merely a compression of various abstractions. Since words, numbers, value are all abstract concepts themselves, with no physical representation, the entire phrase is a narrative. Its structure is the same as “The early bird gets the worm” or “Good things come to those who wait.” This compression allows us to conserve some of our ever so precious attention. We don’t need to know all the details when a narrative compresses several abstractions into a concise form stripped of all the detail that does not matter at the moment.
System 1 Processing
Dual process theory is a psychological model that describes two modes of potentially contradictory thought: implicit and explicit, specifically in the context of reasoning and decision-making. Implicit processing is done quickly and automatically, without conscious effort or even intent. It is typically associative in nature rather than rational (examples: priming, stereotypes). Explicit processing, on the other hand, is slow and effortful. It is goal-directed, logical, precise, and involves conscious awareness (examples: counting syllables in a string of numbers). The model provides an account of how human reasoning actually occurs in real-world situations.
In his best-selling book, Daniel Kahneman states “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” System 1 is what we use when we tell and listen to stories; it is a mental shortcut that allows us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without having to think about every detail of the situation.
Consider the narrative that a particular stock is going to go up because of a product that the company developed. While it sounds analytical and System 2 driven, the fact that it’s told in story form — a prediction with a causal chain that attempts to fill in missing information — is a clue that it’s actually System 1 doing the processing. The narrative is an attempt to compress a lot of information into a single, easy to use summary. It’s easier to remember the narrative than it is to remember the entire chain of events and facts that led up to that prediction: the development of the product, the consumers’ appetite for it, the competition in the marketplace and so on.
Constructing the story gives it a sense of purpose — why would we be seeking an explanation for something if we weren’t worried or curious about the outcome, i.e., if we already knew what was going to happen? The answer is that since System 1 is typically associative rather than rational (it works by association and not logical reasoning) it can’t make decisions without our input. It uses the information we feed it to come up with answers that seem right — without having to do the heavy lifting of analytical reasoning.
The System 1 processing also helps transmit narratives and partly why narratives are so prevalent in human society — they have replicative power. When you are told the narrative about the stock that’s going to go up, you can quickly relay the narrative to the next person you meet without having to get bogged down in the details. A narrative is also more likely to spread than a set of facts. Emotion is “contagious” and stories are a particularly powerful way to trigger an emotional response. This is why narratives (including meme-based ones) spread so quickly whereas facts and data have a much tougher time. The explicit reasoning required for facts and data of System 2 is expensive in terms of attention, which, as stated above, is incredibly limited.
Appeal to Agency
The arguments laid out above regarding compression and emotional appeal won’t raise any eyebrows — they are pretty straightforward. The third reason that I believe that we succumb to narratives is something that I call “appeal to agency.” Agency is defined on Wikipedia as:
“Individual agency is when a person acts on his/her own behalf, whereas proxy agency is when an individual acts on behalf of someone else (such as an employer). Collective agency occurs when people act together, such as a social movement.”
So with the term “agency,” I’m referring to the ability for a person to act or react to a particular situation. Consider the mundane stories of daily life, like why you’re stuck in traffic, or why your career is not advancing. In both of those scenarios, the reasons are numerous and have a complex reaction of both personal and external factors at play. Developing a story that either focuses on personal factors, (i.e., “I’m stuck in traffic because I left 5 minutes too late”) or external ones (i.e., “My career is stalled because my boss is insecure”) gives us a sense of some agency, even if by proxy. In the case of traffic, blaming an external event like a parade, school buses, or a construction crew is much easier than remembering the individual actions of every driver. The same goes for internally driven causes like waking up too late, or procrastinating on your work. It’s much easier to remember the aggregate actions of everyone involved than it is to remember all the individual things that happened leading to a particular outcome.
This appeal to agency makes stories particularly sticky since they are a way of explaining why we happened to be in the same place at the same time that something else happened. We like to feel like we have an impact on our world, whether it’s positive or negative. For example, if you see a car accident, you’re more likely to remember the details about the car than you are to remember what the street corner looked like or how many other cars were around at the time. The idea that you COULD HAVE acted differently gives a sense of proxy agency, which we apparently crave.
Appeal to potential agency is why we’re so susceptible to narratives. When our ability to reason analytically runs into a wall, it’s much easier to use a narrative than it is to do the hard work of digging deep and setting aside our biases. It’s also easier for someone who wants us to believe something to use the narrative tool than it is to try and convince us with a series of facts and figures. The narrative is a way to provide a reasonable person standard — if there’s a compelling enough story, then we’re willing to make some allowances for analytical errors or gaps.
As stated earlier, there are many reasons that humans succumb to narratives, but the three outlined above are the ones that I’ve found most compelling. While I think that narratives are an inherent aspect of our psychology, they also have a clear advantage when it comes to communication and information processing. Arguably, this is why we use them so frequently. This is also why it’s important to remember that narratives aren’t facts, and can be just as dangerous as they are helpful. Succumbing to narratives is the first step to falling victim to The Narrative Fallacy, which is an error in logic based on constructed causal chains.