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The Downside of Stories

In Marketing, and elsewhere, stories abound. The story is the new vehicle for breaking through advertising noise, showing your passion, and illustrating concepts. That is all fine. Increasingly, stories are also used to interpret and explain data. This is what I find dangerous, and it relates in particular to the success or failure of businesses and products.

Humans are all too willing to use narratives to make sense of data, even when none is supplied. Consider these phrases:

A man walked into a room with a bag of candy. Four children began to smile.

I’ve grouped them together, and they feel like a narrative. It’s hard to resist connecting the two sentences, but they could be interpreted independently, as two unrelated sentences. Try it though, and your brain rebels. They must go together, they make so much sense. Seriously, those kids must be smiling because of the candy.

The Washington Post recently ran this article:

The title is interesting, and I read the piece. As it turns out, the author relates a single example where a well-connected student got a pass on shoddy work. There are no aggregate statistics anywhere to be found about Harvard. Now, I have a suspicion that I could easily dig up a similar story about most any university, given enough time. But set that aside. The really important thing is that, regardless of whether this problem is widespread or not, the author has almost certainly successfully created an association in my brain between Harvard and favoritism of rich, arrogant students. I am even skeptical of the evidence presented, but I still think of this example when I think of Harvard. However temporary this effect may be, it is still much stronger than I would like. The story has inserted itself into my schema for Harvard. Until I have more information, or the schema grows in a new direction, Harvard has been splashed with mud in my brain, without my permission.

Such is the power of stories that we enter into them almost without realizing it. In a New York Times article from 2014, the author presents evidence from brain scans that we sometimes process figurative components of metaphors as if they are real.

For example, when we read “leathery hands,” the part of the brain that handles textures lights up. Reading “strong hands” doesn’t produce the same effect. From the article:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life

This isn’t my complaint. I like this about stories. They can substitute for real experiences. But it does relate to my problem with stories: they are sneaky and powerful. They are sneaky because they blend in with fact without our noticing and they are powerful because they seem as solid as our own experiences.

The combination of all of these things make stories powerful tools with major potential for misuse.

Illustrations Gone Wild

Stories are excellent at illustrating ideas, making them clear, bringing them to life. Unfortunately, too often the story becomes much more. It becomes a bias toward a belief about causality.

Philip Tetlock is well-known for writing about human prediction. As it turns out, most people are bad at prediction, but some are not. He uses the metaphor of Hedgehogs and Foxes. Hedgehogs protect a central idea using the facts they encounter. The more facts they have, the better they protect the theory. This has the ironic impact that Hedgehogs with more education are worse at prediction. Foxes, on the other hand, are flexible and open to new data that may change their minds. For Foxes, prediction accuracy scales up with data.

I believe that stories almost induce Hedgehog mindsets. I don’t know in which category I fall (Fox or Hedgehog), but I find myself slipping into narratives all the time, especially when I read news articles.

The Selection Bias as Catalyst

We don’t tell just any stories. Boring ones, and those that we find uncomfortable get suppressed. Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect:

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

The real story “I have low ability” is suppressed, and the more palatable story “this task must be hard” surfaces instead. Once the story is told, it feels just like a fact. I won’t dip into political examples, but I’m sure you can think of some yourself. How many people on “the other side” are telling themselves a story that you don’t think is true? But they believe it so fiercely. Of course they are wrong. You are right. Your story is the true one.

Stories as Evidence

Aside from illustration and communication, stories can be used as evidence, sometimes. They are good at doing two jobs:

  1. Providing counterexamples
  2. Proving existence

Stories are also good for helping to generate theory and explore possible causes. Far too often, we tend to skip from the story as a theory all the way to story as an explanation of causality.

Stop It

You wouldn’t use a hammer to do the job of a screwdriver. Don’t use a story to do the job of an experiment, or data analysis.

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