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Narrative Fallacy

Definition

Humans perceive experiences as stories in a structured sequence. But narratives are limited by how they derive meaning from reality.

The narrator weaves fact into fiction by creating a logical order that describes an event, however genuine the story may seem.

While stories are a powerful mechanism for understanding the world and remembering situations, they can incorrectly lead folks to think they know more than they do.

Why Use It

Reality is full of information and would be nearly incomprehensible without stringing narratives together.

Try recounting something that happened, and the impulse to tell a story will naturally occur — it’s innate. Stories reduce complexity and order chaos, whether they are poems, podcasts, fables, myths, films, shows, novels, etc.

The problem with the best stories is how cleanly they deliver a message that can immediately be incorporated into your views. It provides an unearned sense of confidence without deep knowledge, essential details, or facts.

When to Use It

Cause and effect are how folks assign meaning to the past.

Looking back on events helps process what it means:

  • You’re walking down the street and suddenly trip: you need to know why. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention.
  • Someone else wins an award you were up for, and you want to understand why they deserved it more. It’s possible the winner’s work was better and fit the judges’ tastes.

Discovering reasons why things happen explains life; otherwise, you’d be blind to your existence, seeing only randomness.

Conversely, creating stories can be error-prone when it leads farther from the truth. Analyzing a situation can lead to falsity; inverting a problem can deliver an incorrect outcome. The road to deciphering meaning is riddled with potholes.

For example, an elevator falls twenty stories and kills ten people. When journalists write about the tragedy, they focus on the people who perished. What happened to them? What were their goals in life? Where were they headed? Say there was one lone survivor; they might ask why they were spared. It’s not material as to why the event took place — something was wrong with the lift. It could have given out before then, and other elevators may share the same weakness. Focusing on the human element diminishes the most critical part of the story in this heart-wrenching narrative.

How to Use It

People’s bias to observe, employ, and relate stories in any context is everpresent. News journalism holds a unique position aligning current events to ideologies. A simple way to lower the noise is to reduce the number of inputs or avoid heavily biased sources altogether.

Iconoclasts, heroes, and leaders are written into rote narrative structures in books and movies. Their path to greatness can seem driven by a specific set of actions, but recognizing how unique the person’s circumstances are is imperative. How many other folks are similar or took the same route? Are their special events that have been overlooked? Much of this works’ ideas revolve around the same themes, such as working hard and being naturally gifted.

There are several tactics for examining a narrative’s accuracy:

  • Introduce some skepticism into well-told stories.
  • Look for the tropes in a given medium.
  • Check the source for biases.
  • Compare conflicting opinions.
  • Note hard evidence versus narrative flair.
  • Review your personal biases for the subject or event.

Narratives are alluring as vehicles for the truth, but valuing lived experiences can provide essential sediment. There is no substitute for discovering things for yourself, reviewing complex data, and doing your due diligence.

How to Misuse It

Observing good hygiene when reviewing narratives is essential. Still, it shouldn’t inhibit learning from other people’s knowledge or a credible person’s best efforts to explain a complex issue.

Next Step

Be humble and curious when approaching narratives, even with what you think you know. Reconsider some of your deeply held beliefs that lack deep knowledge. Pressure test the fundamental ways in which ideas become your own without necessarily reviewing them.

Where it Came From

Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term in his 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.

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Deep Dive Into Mental Models

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