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We understand the story not the reality

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

We understand the story not the reality

Scott Miker

Our society relies heavily on storytelling.  Watch the evening news and you will see some statistics but mostly you will see stories.  Stories and eye witness reports with data to back up their point of view for the article.  What you typically don’t see is an unbiased look at an event or situation. 

When you study the psychological factors in our thinking one thing becomes increasingly clear.  Quick thinking, and the natural biases and tendencies around which, has helped us evolve but also causes an overreliance on certain factors.  We rely heavily on our subconscious mind to react.  While this may put us at a disadvantage at times, in hindsight we can always find ways to justify our actions through our rational mind.  This hides the true influence of our subconscious to make decisions. 

One of the reasons that I really love the Tao Te Ching is because it challenges ways of thinking.  It does this by providing paradoxes.  It gives two points that seem like opposites but ties them together in a way that gives insight.  Paradoxes such as losing by gaining and gaining by losing seem to be misleading at first but with careful examination highlight an often missed principle. 

In politics we also rely on the story to convey our messages.  Years ago politicians brought in a new character, Joe the Plumber, and used him to tell the story of the everyday worker.  Instead of giving statistics on the middle class they used one person to show the world who the middle class was.  While they probably did not mean to mislead, any statistician (and most of us) knows that a sample size of 1 won’t tell you about the whole group.  The sample size is much too small.

But there is the key.  As you increase the sample size you lose the individual story.  You lose much of the emotion and it becomes less compelling.  Therefore to be effective, it seems that telling the story is the best way to convey your point, but not the best way to prove your point. 

There is an interesting video that was created back in the 1940s by two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel.  Here is a link to the video.  I recommend you watch the short video before continuing to read.

After watching the video, who was the bully?  Who was the victim?  What emotions went through you as you watched the video?

The interesting thing is that most of us easily identify the “characters” in the story.  We can relate to the story enough and follow the story line pretty easily.  But if we ignore the “story” and ignore the emotional ties that we felt for a moment, we can examine the reality of the movie.  The reality is that it is simply a few objects being drawn to move around and symbolize behavior that we understand.  Was the object really being bullied?  Is the triangle sad or angry or scared?

But is this story and the emotions we felt accurate?  Most of us would argue that yes our emotions help clue us in to what is really going on. 

Hopefully you are starting to see how biased we can be.  We take our own perspective into everything we observe.  Then we add our biases to it before making a decision.  We better understand the story over statistics because the story can pull in our emotions easier than a number. 

Imagine that you are watching the news tonight and see a statistic that says driving fatalities increased from 58 to 61 for the year which is higher than average for this time of year. 

Now imagine that the next story goes deep into the life of a new family.  The father, mother, and toddler are shown through pictures and video and you really start to relate to this family.  Then they explain that they were involved in a fatal traffic accident over the weekend.  The newscaster explains that they were in an accident with a drunk driver.  Then she explains that the accident was caused when the father took his eyes off the road to read a text message and swerved into the other lane striking the drunk driver’s car. 

Did you feel your emotional judgment pulling you in various directions in the story?  Yet the statistic could have represented the same situation.  It is the lack of a story and specifics that make it easy to disregard the number.  But with the full emotion of the story it is hard to avoid the sadness, anger, confusion etc. that accompanies a tragic story.  This is why we tend to use story as much as we do.

But the problem with using the story to convey our message is that it is easy to mislead.  It is too common today to hear a story that is trying to persuade you to feel a certain way or behave in a certain way.  But is the story always the most accurate look at the larger issues?  I would argue that using story to convey a message is effective, but also misleading.  Taking such a small sample size means that it isn’t as representative as we might think.  It is a biased look at a situation. 

Make sure when we are making decisions in our own lives we take a moment to look for additional information.  Are there other sources of information that confirm the argument being made?  Is there evidence that refutes the message behind the story?  Are they pulling one emotional story to persuade you rather than presenting all of the facts and letting you make a rational decision?