Story Thought and System Thought

A story or a system

  • Story thought emphasizes subjective human experience, the primacy of individual actors, narrative and social ordering, messiness, edge cases, content, and above all meaning.
  • System thought emphasizes 3rd-person descriptions of phenomena from a neutral perspective, the interchangeability of actors and details, categorical or logical ordering, measurements, flow, form, and above all coherence.
  • Think of how frustrating a sign-up wall is for a person encountering it; perhaps imagine how obviously “system-benefitting” such a feature is, and worry that a user will “sense” that and think less of your brand; imagine how uncool it feels to have one, how “anathema to the spirit of the web” etc.
  • Look at the data and see that more people sign up with the wall than without; consider the mandatory nature of growth for the success of your product, which you think is good for the world, and how unclear the idea of “brand affinity” is, as well as whether you can (or should) make a short-term penalty / long-term gain tradeoff in this instance
  • Picture a hard-working individual who cannot possibly make ends meet on their low wage; imagine them also being a parent, or a student; think of the absence of opportunities for promotion, the stultifying effect of bone-dead low-wage-job exhaustion on their ambitions, or the wealth of their employer; think of other people who don’t work at all and yet are rich, and how individually unfair the world is
  • Imagine the systematic effects of raising the minimum wage; consider what evidence we have of the broadest effects of doing so, or how we’d generate evidence if no good evidence exists; think of the likelihood that every system will have costs, and compare the costs of ours to others, or the lives of minimum wage-earners today to people in the past; consider whether it’s relevant that some are rich; think of the best “overall” policy
  • Do you “love” your partner, or family or children? Does your love reflect who they are, who you are? Is it special, worth self-sacrifice? Is it unique or personal or beautiful, something worth celebrating with rituals, parties, tokens? Is it meaningful?
  • Is it human nature to seek what’s rewarded by our neurotransmitters, usually higher-order actions which flush those chemicals because they’re evolutionarily rewarding, making your love as meaningful as your metabolism, as unique as a bowel movement? Is it perhaps “a good feeling” but not especially meaningful?
Judith Rothschild, “Greenwich Village,” 1945.

In companies

  • imagine an ideal or “first principles” your content should reflect, based on imagined audiences or extrinsic morals or anything else; you can then make decisions based on this idea and these principles, asking yourself “what people think about this mix”; or you can
  • measure what people click on and try to make more of that; assume that whatever they click on is what they want (how else can clicking be interpreted?), and made decisions based on usage data.
Wassily Kandinsky, “Kleine Welten VII,” 1922.

Known Unknowns


  1. To be concrete, “thinking” here means: what sorts of entities appear in our arguments; what kinds of operations we accept on those entities (analogies or measurements or anecdotes or the like); what tradeoffs we’ll make between reach and accuracy in our thinking; how much, if any, evidence we require, and what constitutes evidence. People of relative overall similarity can have strikingly different attitudes about modes of thinking, and when this happens persuasion can be very hard.
  2. This dilemma is an old one in philosophy, exemplified for most by Kierkegaard’s resistance to Hegel; Walker Percy described Kierkegaard as saying that Hegel is “a philosopher who can explain everything under the sun except one small detail: what it means to be a human…” And indeed most of our systems work in precisely this fashion: whatever their overall predictive power, they fail to account for the subjective experience of human beings, and for the meanings that arise from them.
  3. One of the powers of art is to focus our attention to this level of detail in other lives and experiences. This is why it’s possible to have anti-heroes in novels, or complex moral figures in film. A truly realistic portrayal of another almost always arouses our sympathy, because it renders our reductive moral systems ineffectual and prompts us to “judge them as we’d be judged.”
  4. Abhinav Sharma has written about using Kahneman’s ideas in product design and how that lens clarifies some of these issues.
  5. It’s probable that many do and did understand this, but their business models and the environment their industry is in make it hard for them pursue any course other than engagement-seeking. If so, innovation in models is needed, which is even harder than innovation in content or products. It may merely be that cultures need to realize how desperately they need news well-covered and must increase what they’ll pay for—how much they value— it.




Product Design Manager at Quora. Formerly at Facebook, Mokriya, and my house.

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Mills Baker

Mills Baker

Product Design Manager at Quora. Formerly at Facebook, Mokriya, and my house.

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