“Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all encompassing and not quite palpable.”
— Jonathan Gottschall
Our world is brined in stories. From the fabulously bizarre myths scattered across ancient cultures to the political narratives of modern-day, stories are our go-to operative medium for conceptualizing the world around us. We cannot help ourselves, this instinct is embroiled in our very neurology.
Naturally, we suspect that we are far more loyal to the clean straightforwardness of data, evidence, crisp rationality — that type of thing — than we actually reveal ourselves to be in practice. But stories are what grip us, what compose our epistemological foundations (perhaps unbeknownst to us, however).
That we are attached to stories — potent devices which are necessarily off-the-mark and sometimes self-fulfilling — is not necessarily human failing, but simply human reality. That is, woe is us is besides the point. Eradicating stories is not within the realm of human feasibility, but awareness of the story impulse is. Thus, the narrative fallacy is not a problem to be solved as much as it constitutes an environment with which to learn to maneuver in.
Our devotion to the medium of story is humbling but it can also be unsettling. The great paradox is this: we tend to overestimate our ability to make sense of the world but we tend to underestimate our hand in creating that world. (In a nutshell this is because narratives adopted en masse can alter behavior and become self-fulfilling).
The narrative fallacy first appeared burrowed within the pages of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s famous The Black Swan:
“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more readily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding. [. . .] We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters. [. . .] The fallacy is associated with our…