141. Critical Thinking: Why You Should Be Suspicious of the Stories You Hear

09 important lessons from this talk:

00:00:50 Stories act as an information filter allowing the storyteller to pack a lot of information and social power into a brief narrative by ignoring certain bits of information while highlighting others. Humans are biologically programmed to respond to stories. But the more inspiring a story makes you feel, the more nervous you should become because the best stories are often the trickiest ones.

00:01:10 In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker explains that all stories can essentually be boiled down into a few reoccuring plots:

  1. Monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. Quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in Robert Sapolsky’s lecture Human Behavioral Biology: The Dangers & Challenges of Categorical Thinking that although humans tend to think categorically because doing so is the simplest, easiest, and most convenient way to make sense of something and to then communicate that something to someone else there are a bunch of problems when it comes to categorical thinking, namely:

  • When you pay too much attention to category boundaries, you don’t see the big picture; all you see are categories.
  • When you think in categories, you underestimate just how different two facts can be when two things “fall under” the same category. Likewise, you over-estimate how different two facts are when they “fall outside” of the same category.]

00:01:54 Humans often rely on metaphors to summarize their lives, and no matter which metaphor they use, they are tacitly implying that their life is a journey; a story. Be it a battle, a season in life, a race, a play, a novel…

00:02:39 When information is conveyed to us in the form of a story, we often place more importance on it, remembering it when perhaps we shouldn’t.

From the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to the story of Paul Revere, these stories aren’t exact renditions of what actually happened.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains that the true story of Paul Revere’s reputation wasn’t that he was the only rider who set out on horseback to warn his fellow countrmen that the British were coming. There was a second rider: William Dawes. Revere went down in history because he was just the more socially connected rider, and knew who in each village to contact that would help spread the alarm.]

00:03:25 A few dangers that come with relying too heavily on stories are:

  • The stories you tell yourself to make sense of the world are too simple and can be summarized in as little as a sentence, such as a brand’s mission statement or unique selling point. An example of this would be conspiracy theories and ‘good versus evil.’ Nothing is merely either good OR evil, and attempting to categorize everything in such a way is an insult to the intelligence of the storyteller as much so as the person being told the story.
  • The stories can serve multiple objectives and may even be contradictory or conflicting, such as ‘getting tough’ with bankers or political parties. ‘Getting tough’ with the Nazis was a good thing; ‘getting tough’ on a convenient person or group of people without having all the information because we need a ‘face to the evil,’ isn’t.
  • We aren’t always fed the right stories and information, and humans can only fit so many stories and facts into their mind at once. Further, memories are unreliable, malleable, and often deceptive.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in Ray Hyman’s lecture Critical Thinking: Keys to Critical Thinking & Thinking About Dubious Claims that smart people can make stupid mistakes because being competent in one field of study in no way guarantees being competent in another field of study.

The problem is that when you think about any kind of claim, the most important issue to think about is the quality of the information and supporting data behind that claim. Garbage in; garbage out. It doesn’t matter how advanced your critical thinking skills are, if your original information is wrong, any solutions you arrive at will be flawed. Therefore it’s imperative to make sure you’re starting with good data. Good data is very, very hard to come across.

For more on the unreliability and malleability of the human mind, as well as the positive and negative consequences of this, read the books:

00:08:22 Cognitive biases are the at the forefront of much research these days, and many books such as:

…to name a few. Yet the one underlying problem these books don’t identify is that humans tell themselves too many seductive stories that shape their behavior in ways they don’t want or in ways that are detrimental to their well-being.

The books you read to combat cognitive biases become a part of your cognitive biases.

00:09:22 Pessimism is so abundant today because psychologically humans like to expect and plan for the worst, that way they can adequately defend themselves against it.

00:09:45 The modern global economical system praises sales and profit with wealth and success, and outsiders attempt to persuade and manipulate you through those stories. Bundle your product, service, or religious belief with a convincing and emotionally-laden story, and you become the proud owner of a new product, story, or religious belief.

A lot of people have a financial incentive to promote the best version of their own story, and so humans live surrounded by seductive stories.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in my interview with Rory Sutherland on disruption, emotional branding & behavioral economics that economics has this weird thing in that so many people have careers, advancement, and promotion dependent on basically believing in neoclassical economics and its propogation that it’s become a sort of pseudo-scientific religion. Once you’ve invested a lot of effort in learning the lingo, you’re pretty reluctant to abandon it.

For more information on how this sort of wealth dependency is compounding the effects of global warming, watch the documentary End:CIV – How Our Industrial Society is Leading Towards an Ecological Apolalypse.]

00:13:14 Humans “use memory to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people.” This isn’t going to change.

Learn to be suspicious of the stories you hear and tell yourself, and the stories that you find the most inspiring; because they are the ones which have the most power over your decisions.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on how brands carefully craft stories and messages, refresh How to Shape Human Behavior by interviews.]