How Can Stories Be So Powerful?


A lot has been said recently about narratives. If you are at all interested in how humans understand reality, the term seems to show up everywhere

Their omnipresence is well-deserved. Stories are unique devices for making sense of the world. It’s how our brains work. As cognitive scientist Mark Tuner has said: “Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining.”

This influx of narratives got me thinking. It might be fun to take a trip to all the different areas that they now populate and see what we can learn. The journey will be bumpy and exciting, and much will be explained.

All aboard the storytelling train!

Stop 1: Stories that unify groups

It’s our day off so — naturally — we all got bought a beer at the way-too-expensive station kiosk. Never mind that it’s still in the AM.

With five minutes delay, our ride arrives. We’re the only people in there. The train has a modern interior, chairs of light-purple leather that are slightly uncomfortable. Of course there are smart-screens and WiFi. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Is this what you wanted?’ is softly playing in the background.

If you’re unlucky enough to be seated in my vicinity, we’re probably debating a philosophical argument by now.

“DETERMINISM IS FALSE!!!”

Our lively discussion is interrupted as we arrive at our first stop.

On 11 September 2001, the biggest event in recent history happened as hijacked airplanes penetrated the Twin Towers. In his book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith shows that Americans and “militant Muslims” interpret the 9/11 attacks in the light of very different narratives: Americans see things through what Smith calls “the American Experiment narrative” in which Americans fled the oppression of the old world and ever since have been a shining beacon of liberty and hope, while the “Militant Islamic Resurgence” narrative gives a radically different view in which America has long been a bully and a hypocrite.

Smith argues that neither narrative is more correct in any objective sense. They are ways in which people have tried to make sense of history. That is what they are for.

Which story we identify with influences how we think and how we act. On a cultural level, the point of such stories is not to inform people about veridical timelines. Rather they’re there to unite communities.

“Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story.” — The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschal

Some of us are unhappy with this emphasis on functionality. They think it ignores truth. They have decided to leave the train and attack poor Smith, who is now running for his life. Perhaps they shouldn’t have downed that beer.

General lesson as we get moving: the purpose of these narratives is not to provide an objectively true account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together.

Stop 2: Stories made up by our press secretary

While we continue to argue about the existence of free will, things heat up. Those of us who defend of compatibilism move from seat to seat, trying to quiet everyone by insisting that there’s not a problem to solve here. They don’t seem to succeed.

Our next stop is a visit to the house of the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga — famous for his work on how our brain generates post-hoc explanations of our behavior.

He welcomes us and asks why we are with fewer people than expected. We recall what happened.

“Poor Smith,” he mumbles.

He serves tea without biscuits. We ask him why. He says he doesn’t know and starts explaining his theory that, when asked to explain their behavior, people engage in an effortful search that may feel like a kind of introspection. However, what people are searching for is not a memory of the actual cognitive processes that caused their acts, because these processes are not accessible to consciousness. Instead, people are scanning their repertoire of possible interpretations for plausible stories about why they might have done what they did.

For instance, when asked why he enjoyed a party, a person turns first to his cultural knowledge about why people enjoy parties, chooses a reason, and then searches for evidence that this narrative was applicable.

Our brains’ language center — or ‘The Interpreter’ as Gazzaniga refers to it — is tremendously skilled at making up stories. Gazzaniga passionately argues that behavior is usually produced by mental modules to which consciousness has no access but that the interpreter module provides a running commentary anyway, constantly generating hypotheses to explain why the self might have performed any particular deed.

So: when asked to explain their actions or choices, people make up stories that sound plausible but are probably false.

This can get pretty wild, as Gazzaniga’s experiments with split-brain patients illustrate. Take this case of a split-brain patient unconsciously making up a nonsense story when its two hemispheres are shown different images and instructed to choose a related image from a group of pictures. Read carefully:

“We showed a split-brain patient two pictures: A chicken claw was shown to his right visual field, so the left hemisphere only saw the claw picture, and a snow scene was shown to the left visual field, so the right hemisphere saw only that. He was then asked to choose a picture from an array of pictures placed in fully view in front of him, which both hemispheres could see.
The left hand pointed to a shovel (which was the most appropriate answer for the snow scene) and the right hand pointed to a chicken (the most appropriate answer for the chicken claw). Then we asked why he chose those items. His left-hemisphere speech center replied, “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken,” easily explaining what it knew. It had seen the chicken claw.
Then, looking down at his left hand pointing to the shovel, without missing a beat, he said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” Immediately, the left brain, observing the left hand’s response without the knowledge of why it had picked that item, put into a context that would explain it. It interpreted the response in a context consistent with what it knew, and all it knew was: Chicken claw. It knew nothing about the snow scene, but it had to explain the shovel in his left hand. Well, chickens do make a mess, and you have to clean it up. Ah, that’s it! Makes sense.
What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, “I don’t know,” which truly was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense.” — Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Indeed, according to free will skeptics such as Benjamin Libet — from the famous Libet experiments —if decisions have their origins in unconscious processes of we are not aware, then we never decide freely

After we thank Dr. Gazzaniga for his lecture, we walk back to the station reflecting on an astonishing implication: when people are asked to explain the causes of their judgments and actions, they frequently cite factors that could not have mattered and fail to recognize factors that did matter. We make up the narrative afterwards — that voice in our head is a press secretary who is explaining to the media, without knowing exactly how, why what we just did was very smart.

The tapestry of our beliefs starts to unravel right in front of our eyes.

Stop 3: Stories limit how we make sense of the world

We are barely seated when the train arrives at the next station.

Very close to home, here on Medium, Charles Chu works out this idea: if we make sense of the world through our stories, then how much, and which, stories we have in our repertoire determines ‘how much sense we can make’ of the world. This has consequences:

Men’s views of one another will differ profoundly as a very consequence of their general conception of the world: the notions of cause and purpose, good and evil, freedom and slavery, things and persons, rights, duties, laws, justice, truth, falsehood, depend directly upon the general framework within which they form, as it were, nodal points.” -Isaiah Berlin, The Purpose of Philosophy

As we’ve seen, when asked to explain their behaviors, people are searching for plausible theories about why they might have done what they did. We turn to a pool of culturally supplied accounts of behavior — recall the party example — and then conduct a one-sided search of memory for supporting evidence. We generate explanations out of a pre-existing pool of stories.

This pool of stories constitutes the boundaries of our capacity for understanding. When we are trying to make sense of a situation, we are only able to do so through our repertoire of stories.

The more frames that we have at our disposal for making sense of the world, the better. Having too few constructs can create problems:

“[The role of which interpretations are in our toolkit] helps explain why your sister can’t seem to move beyond her divorce, in spite of all your attempts to give her new things to do. She treats everyone in terms of a simple construct, ‘trustworthy vs. will leave me in a flash like Sam did’ and in so doing she reduces her degrees of freedom and retreats from re-engaging with life and moving ahead.” — Brian Little, Me, Myself and Us

If a possible interpretation is not in our toolkit, we can’t use it to understand what’s going on. Indeed, those with few personal constructs and narratives have limited sense-making abilities. Their tools just don’t apply to many of the new situations they need to deal with in life:

“When you only have a hammer, the whole world starts to look like a nail.” — Charles Chu

Stop 4: Stories that our lawyer defends

Back in the train, surprise starts to rise. It’s uncanny to realize that the size of our repertoire of available narratives to explain and describe our world is such a big thing. Even more so when we combine this with Gazzaniga’s insights about how we often make up false explanations to ‘fit’ reality onto one of these mental models in our toolkit.

At our next stop at the cognitive sciences department of the local university, things get even worse.

It turns out that even people with a larger toolkit are vulnerable to the confirmation bias: everyone tries to make the world fit their own theories, instead of the other way around.

Psychologists since Freud have argued that people construct views of themselves and of the world and that they experience potentially crippling anxiety when these constructions are threatened. Rationality is frequently hijacked by a defense motivation or “desire to hold attitudes and beliefs that are congruent with existing self-definitional attitudes and beliefs”.

We pick the story that allows us to hold on to our worldview.

In weaving our web of beliefs, we are not scientists trying to figure out what is most accurate. We are lawyers who try to make everything fit into the story we want to believe in.

Take the story of the just world hypothesis. People have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve. Unfortunate souls who suffer for no reason are a threat to this belief, so people adjust their moral judgments, derogating or blaming innocent victims. Another example: when people with strong opinions about the death penalty are exposed to evidence on both sides of the issue, they accept evidence supporting their prior belief uncritically while subjecting opposing evidence to intense scrutiny.

This point generalizes.

Studies of everyday reasoning reveal that people show a strong tendency to search for anecdotes and other “evidence” exclusively on their preferred side of an issue. Once people find supporting evidence, even a single piece of bad evidence, they often stop the search, since they have a “makes-sense epistemology” in which the goal of thinking is not to reach the most accurate conclusion but to find the first conclusion that hangs together well and that fits with one’s internalized commitments to how the world ought to be.

What’s crucial here, the cognitive scientists tell us, is the order of priorities. As lawyers, our aim is to defend our worldview. That goal carries more weight than improving it.

Not a stop 5: stories that we believe in

The discussion we were having about free will, all of a sudden, seems both irrelevant and extremely relevant: why do people believe the stories they believe?

Answer: that depends on the ur-story we want to believe in.

It’s stories all the way down. Which narrative we tell ourselves about 9/11 (or about why we spend our time on trains), depends on the deeper story that we want to be able to hold on to vis-a-vis ourselves and the world.

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.” — The Narrative Fallacy, Farnam Street

Stories are an illusion and a reality.

This is partly unconscious. Without access to the causes of our behavior, our Interpreter will weave a story anyway, drawing from available mental models.

It’s also conscious. When assessing beliefs, we are more lawyer than scientist. In this effort, we are led more by a desire for coherence than by an ideal for accuracy. As such, many of our beliefs have only been subjected to a limited level of scrutiny:

“In reconciling the past and the present, the left-brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world.” — Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

As a lawyer, our aim is to hold the story together, so that we can get on with our lives.

You believe the things that you do for reasons. Only a small part of these justifying reasons is about the alleged truth of the belief. So-called ‘extra-epistemic’ reasons play a large in the story of why you believe what you believe. At the most fundamental level, we try to fit everything in our moral intuitions of how the world should be. We use reasoning to defend prior moral commitments. Not to arrive at better-informed ones.

True enough.

When you are religious, you don’t see scientific arguments against the existence of Transcendent Beings as a refutation of your framework, but as a challenge to make sense of those within your belief system. I contend that most web of beliefs have a justificatory structure that is more like that than we like to admit. We don’t treat our most intimate convictions about whether life is good or bad, people are nice or evil, as empirical hypotheses. Instead, these serve as limitations on what we are willing to consider as possibly true. Counter-evidence is not a refutation, but something that we accommodate within the framework we, as lawyers, seek to hold on to.

At the end of the day, people believe what they, deep down, want to believe.

The end

Talking about the end of the day, the train has arrived at its final station in the middle of nowhere.

Too baffled to argue further about free will, we exit the train and say goodbye and go our own ways.

In the late evening, already in bed, the traveler who has just finished this journey can only think one thing:

Crazy story, huh?