The Narrative Fallacy

This article originally appeared on Farnam Street.

The Narrative Fallacy

A typical biography starts by describing the subject’s young life, trying to show how the ultimate painting began as just a sketch. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for example, Isaacson determines that Jobs’s success was determined to a great degree by the childhood influence of his father, a careful, detailed-oriented engineer and craftsman — Paul Jobs would carefully craft the backs of fences and cabinets even if no one would see — who Jobs later found out was not his biological father. The combination of his adoption and his craftsman father planted the seeds of Steve’s adult personality: his penchant for design detail, his need to prove himself, his messianic zeal. The recent movie starring Michael Fassbender especially plays up the latter cause; Jobs’s feeling of abandonment drove his success. Fassbender’s emotional portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination.

Nassim Taleb describes a memorable experience of a similar type in his book The Black Swan. He’s in Rome having an animated discussion with a professor who has read Nassim’s first book Fooled by Randomness, parts of which promote the idea that our mind creates more cause-and-effect links than reality would support. The professor proceeds to congratulate Nassim on his great luck by being born in Lebanon:

…had you grown up in a Protestant society where people are told that efforts are linked to rewards and individual responsibility is emphasized, you would never have seen the world in such a manner. You were able to see luck and separate cause and effect because of your Eastern Orthodox Mediterranean heritage.

These types of stories strike a deep chord: They give us deep, affecting reasons on which to hang our understanding of reality. They help us make sense of our own lives. And, most importantly, they frequently cause us to believe we can predict the future. The problem is, most of them are a sham.

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