Narrative Bias

The Devil is in the lack of detail. Blind-Spots seeks to show how familiar stories, especially when widely believed, can lead us astray and expose us all to risk. (Originally hosted in LinkedIn, April 2016)

Another recent article about how, for 30 years, we religiously clung to the dogma that fat is what causes obesity got me thinking about the frighteningly destructive power of stories.

We are naturally a very mentally lazy species. If it’s got a nice ring to it, it must be true huh?

As the above report points out, the second we decided to replace fat with carbs in our diet, the rates of obesity started to climb at a close-to vertical rate, but it was too late by then: the story had taken hold.

This is just one of countless cases in the same epidemic: humanity’s habit of understanding the world around it through stories.

We often deride detail as ‘semantics‘ (do people know what that word actually means?) or suggest that people who are overly focused on the minutiae of a scenario are missing the big picture (or stomach-churningly: not thinking strategically).

But far from it always being mere pedantry; often one small piece of detail if omitted or distorted can radically alter, sometimes to the point of the polar opposite, the meaning or outcome of a story. 

I believe our mental addiction to short, trite, thought-terminating clichés runs parallel to our physical addiction to sugar. They’re easy and give us that short-run little hit of satisfaction.

The general aversion that the average person has to Maths doesn’t help but this brings me to the point I’d like to make.

In statistics, a piece of data is known as an observation. I don’t think Maths will give us all perfectly accurate perception but I do believe that thinking a little bit more quantitatively and a bit less narratively will make us much better at decision making because a slightly more maths-based mental diet will force us to observe more than a narrative-based diet will and so with a greater in-flow of information we have more to base our decisions on.

Along with sugar, we should start weaning ourselves off our reliance on stories as our primary means for understanding the world around us.

One thought on “Narrative Bias

  1. To say “carbs” is too vague. Consuming too much (more than a little) refined carbs such as white flour or sugar are not good. Unrefined carbs that you would get from starchy vegetables or whole grains – not bad.

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