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2. Because we create stories so naturally, we might not notice that some of the stories we create are inaccurate. We formulate some stories based on little or incorrect info, or under the influence of our biases. 

This is the second of a 4-part series on "Stories"
In part 1, we examine how we automatically create stories to help us understand and explain what is happening in our lives.
In part 2, we explore how some of the stories we create are inaccurate

In part 3, we reflect on how it is very difficult to change the stories that we have created

In part 4, we look at how the stories we create go on to impact our lives

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Our daily lives are filled with tweets and Facebook posts. And reading these, don't you feel really angry with these politicians? Did you formulate a story about how spoilt and entitled they are, travelling in luxury at the cost of the taxpayer, or affecting the running of a concert at the cost of everyone's time? Can we trust the politicians? Aren't they out of touch?

Make no mistake, there are some terrible politicians out there.  But aside from who the subject is, how many app messages and headlines do we read on social media today, and how many have we immediately formulated a story about, which is incorrect? What's not mentioned is that:

  • Education Secretary DeVos foot the bill for the private jet herself. Her travel claims have been negligible.

  • Politician John was late because the concert organiser wanted a series of photos with him and the management team before the concert started. He did leave halfway... to use the bathroom, and he didn't return until after the interval, because he didn't want to disrupt the audience experience. He was still around after the concert talking to band members. 

Poltician John.png

Try This!

Steve loved basketball from a young age, and quickly became the best player in the neighbourhood. This year, at age 17, it was no surprise that Steve was the best player on his high school team. John is also 17, but is seven feet (2.13m) tall. John has just picked up basketball. Who is more likely to end up playing in the NBA?

Take a look at the challenge above. Who do you think is more likely to end up playing in the NBA? Regardless of culture or age, most of us believe that Steve is more likely to become an NBA player. His success as a young player helps us formulate a story - he is very good at basketball, much better than others, certainly better than someone who has just played for 2 years. But most of us failed to consider something else -  statistics: 17% of seven footers growing up in America become NBA players. John has a better than 1 in 6 chance of being in the NBA just because of his height. And the chance of a high school team player making the NBA? 0.03% Even if Steve is very good, he has to be among the top 3 out of 10,000 to make it. 


Or how about this: People were willing to pay an average of $14.12 to buy a $100,000 life insurance policy if it covered death caused by terrorist acts, but were only willing to pay $12.13 for the same policy if it covered all causes of death (Johnson, et al 1993).

Sometimes we are attuned to one particular story, it affects our ability to process information logically. More examples:

  • People thought that it was more likely for Roger Federer to "lose the first set but come back strong to win the match" than for him to "lose the first set".  ("Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky) 

  • People gave a higher estimate for the number of lung cancer cases caused by smoking than for the total number of lung cancer cases ("Black Swan", Nicholas Nassim Taleb)

Let's take a look at another example:

Scar Experiment (Robert Kleck, Dartmouth University)

1pc Temporary Tattoo, Scar, Face Stitche
  • Participants were told that the experiment was meant to observe if people behaved differently towards those with facial scars.

  • Participants were placed into rooms with no mirrors

  • A make-up artist proceeded to draw a scar on their face

  • After the scar was drawn, participants were given a short glimpse of it with a pocket mirror.

  • Participants were then invited to leave the room and interact with folks in the building. 

  • Before they left the room, the make-up artist told the participants that the scar needed some final touch-ups. But, what the make-up artist actually did next was to wipe off the make-up of the scar.

  • Participants left the room thinking they still wore a make-up scar.

  • They overwhelmingly reported back that people stared at their scars, and were mean and rude to them. 

Sometimes, it is the stories we create rather than actual reality that causes us to feel fear and anxiety. Just like this scar experiment - the "scars" and the "reactions to these scars" were imagined. How many of our own stories are created by ourselves? How often are we creating a story to judge how we think others judge us? And in turn, if we believe these stories that we create, it affects, making us more unconfident, awkward, uncomfortable. Just like this scar experiment, even when we have no scars, by believing our imaginary stories, we are transpiring to make them come true.

Sure, sometimes our suspicions are indeed justified. Sometimes our stories are true. It might be a very bad period at work. You might really have a terrible boss. Your spouse or partner might have changed. 
The goal isn't to be some overly-positive happy bunny, looking only at the good parts, and trying to write off all the bad as incorrect stories. But with all the challenges we already face in life, we should make sure we are not weaving incorrect stories that constrain or hurt ourselves.


Next example:

Dehumanisation of victims (Albert Bandura, Stanford University)

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  • Participant is told that there are some learners in the other room.

  • The learners will be asked to answer a series of questions. If they answer incorrectly, the participant will be instructed via the receiver to deliver some punishment through a lever.  

  • The participant gets to decide how much punishment he/she wishes to mete out. 

  • Just before the experiment begins, the receiver is "accidentally" left on, and the participant can hear the experimenters "gossiping" about the learners:

    • Scenario 1: the instructors call the learners " a real bunch of animals".​

    • Scenario 2: the instructors call the learners " a nice bunch of people".

    • Scenario 3: nothing is said



  • Even though the "learners' were actually accomplices that made the same number of errors at the same points of time in all 3 scenarios (horizontal axis), the reactions of the participants varied dramatically (vertical axis)

  • The extent of punishment directly correlated with what the examiner said before the experiment:

    • The humanised group (the bunch of nice guys) were punished less than the control group(nothing is said), who was, in turn, punished less than the dehumanised group (a bunch of animals).

  • This difference in punishment happens even when all 3 groups performed exactly the same.

  • Just one line of description is sufficient for us to formulate a story, which then affects our actions and decisions, even if this does not match reality. 


The experiment above is an example of how easy it is for us to formulate wrong stories. Just one word from a stranger we have just met is enough to influence us to condemn another group of strangers. And it comes as no surprise that companies often try to shape our stories, to get us to buy products or services that they are selling. Just think about your reaction to commercials which you've recently watched. 

Then, we have the example of The Shed at Dulwich. 




Ever used peer review sites like TripAdvisor for your making plans?

The Shed at Dulwich made it to No. 1 out of almost 20,000 reviewed restaurants in London. Numero Uno. Pretty impressive huh?

Here's the thing. The Shed at Dulwich didn't exist! All it had was a fake address, some fake food pictures (quite creative, as you see above) and a few fake reviews to begin with. The only thing real was an email address, where the "founders" continually rejected reservations, claiming that the restaurant was fully booked for months! Soon, people started believing these early reviews - and amazingly, added their own reviews and ratings of the place (which they never visited, because again... it didn't exist!!!). The rating of The Shed rose steadily. Magazines and other review sites started paying notice. Some companies even sent free gifts with the hope of getting a table for their CEOs. And it became a mini status-symbol to have dined at The Shed, given how hard it seemed to get a seat. Until... The Shed inexplicably reached number 1. A fake restaurant, beating all the others which served actual food, because it created a story that everyone wanted to believe. 


I think the point has been adequately made. We formulate stories naturally, but sometimes, our stories are inaccurate.  In part 3, we explore how, once we have formulated a story,  it becomes very difficult to change.

But before that, something light-hearted from he super sharp and funny masterpiece of a series -  Yes, Prime Minister. (video is about 2 mins long):

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