Our brain is wired for story
1. We create stories to help us understand the world we live in.
2. Sometimes, the stories we create are inaccurate, based on incorrect information or prior assumptions.
3. However, once we have created a story, it become very difficult to change our minds.
4. Each story we create carries assumptions and biases which affects subsequent stories, and how we view the world.
1. We naturally form stories to help us understand the world we live in.
We want to It does so by taking our experiences, memories, and observations, and weaving them into a story. We remember and convey the majority of information in story form. In fact, story telling is the basis for most of our established norms in the world. Think about how you understand and share:
Religion: there is a heaven after death, and believing in something gets you there
Science: the apple that fell on Newton
Money: we believe that mere pieces of paper, even issued by other countries, are worth what is written on it.
(Yuval Noah Harari's excellent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, provides more examples of humans and story-telling)
Video is 1 min long
What did you see in the video? First, everyone notices a larger triangle, a smaller triangle, and a circle. But then, something interesting happens. You gave the 3 objects a personality - weak, helpless, aggressive, mischievous, etc. And... you formulated a story about the 3 objects based on these personalities. People had to explain You started developing feelings for the shapes.. even though you know they are not real. Isn't it strange that this happened for a few animated objects in a 1 minute video? Is it not possible the objects are moving randomly?
The consistency of story formulation after seeing these 3 objects, from all types of people from different generations over 75 years show what a brilliant experiment this is. And our preference for story-telling. Let's try something else.
In line 3, why did you fill in "h" to form "what"? You did so because your past experience told you that "What" is the most likely word in this sentence. Notice you didn't need to really think about this, you filled in "h" subconsciously. (You might now be racking your brains now for alternatives.. heh.. don't worry "what" is the only possibility.)
In case you're looking to confirm your answers:
1. Can you read this?
2. You are not reading this!
3. What are you reading?
Now think back on something you really aren't looking forward to. Or an event or activity you dislike a lot, but you had no choice but have to go through again. Let's take another look at sentence 3.
Wait a minute. Could there now be an alternative for line 3? Is it possible it could be: "What are you dreading?" Could it also not have been "What are you dreaming?"
This gives us a very important insight. What is reality? Is it simply what we see or hear - what our five senses can collect? But you could read a line that wasn't there. And what line you read can change, even when the letters themselves didn't change. You saw characters and a story from 3 random objects. [Random fact: If something is too bright or too dark, you can't see it. visible spectrum comprises one ten trillionth -- one ten trillionth, of the range of electromagnetic radiation in our world
You depend on your senses to receive information about the world
But it is the brain that interprets the information
For more important things, your brain automatically formulates a story:
But could it be possible that the stories we have chosen to believe might not be accate
2. Some of the stories we formulate are not accurate. We can formulate a story based on just a small amount of information: a headline, an opinion, a photograph. Can you recall the story you had formed after reading a social media post? However the stories we create, even if they are inaccurate, subsequently affects how we view and live our lives. The stories we formulate also carries assumptions and biases that affect the stories we create in the future.
Regardless of culture or age, most of us believed that Steve is more likely to become an NBA player. His success as a young player seems convincing enough. But most of us failed to consider something else. 17% of seven footers growing up in America become NBA players. While there are many neighbourhoods in the US, John has a better than 1 in 6 chance of being in the NBA just because of his height.
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).
Other similar 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)
3. Once we have formulated a story, it becomes very difficult to change our minds. We over-emphasise information supporting our views, and discredit opposing views.
Ever had an experience arguing with a family member, friend, or colleague? You provided a coherent and yet they wouldn't listen. It'How often do you see someone change their minds? For that matter, what about yourself, are you able to listen and accept a different story from your own?
- An overwhelming number of scientists and scientific research points to man-created climate change, yet 4 in 10 Americans do not believe so (in fact, 3 in 10 do not believe there is climate change at all).
- Parents around the world reject vaccinations for fear of affecting a child's immune system, even though this contradicts biology and puts their child at risk of disease that vaccines have been proven to protect against.
- Our resistance to alternative stories that challenge our own extend across all groups, including most ironically, people studying how the brain works. For many years, a fierce and almost vicious fight occurred among neuroscientists, on the possibility for humans to develop new neurons even as we age. Today, adult neurogenesis is proven and accepted. This is a very critical finding - and you can read more about neurogenesis and what it means for us here.
You are angry with a friend, famil member, or partner. The more you think about it, the angrier you are. Your mind races through past memories to find evidence that matches what you are currently feeling.
Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or the frequency illusion. This illusion happens all the time and is characterized by paying attention to a new thing and it subsequently seeming to be everywhere. Arnold Zwicky coined this phenomenon in 2006 and explained that it happens due to two psychological processes: selective attention and confirmation bias.
Your brain doesn't receive information passively. Information - what you see, hear, or feel, has no meaning in and by itself. Your brain attributes the meaning, based on the past experinces you have and the stories you have
It’s just that we don’t see it. We do not experience the world as it is because our brain didn’t evolve to do so. It’s a paradox of sorts: Your brain gives you the impression that your perceptions are objectively real, yet the sensory processes that make perception possible actually separate you from ever accessing that reality directly. Our five senses are like a keyboard to a computer—they provide the means for information from the world to get in, but they have very little to do with what is then experienced in perception. Your reality is parially shaped by your brain. You can shape what your brain thinsk about, and if you don't the brain simply does so unconsiously based on what mostly goes on in your thougths.
Again, this is often very useful, but how can you be sure?
You read it as What are you reading?
Why can't it be what are you dreaming?
Most of your life happened without you there.
Your mind is constantly redefiing it's normal. But a lot of this defining depends onthe history of our ancestors and
Your brain doesn’t receive info passively, and just make out what it is. It is constantly interpreting it based on what it previously knows and believes; in other words, each new piece of info helps us to redefine normality
What you see by itself is not useful to your brain. It needs to carry meaning. And your brain attributes the simplest form of meaning to it, a meaning that was useful to see in the past. Your brain adapts because what was rpeicouslynuseful might not be useful now, so your brain constantly redefines normality.
In this case, the past doesn’t just mean what you experienced yourself in your life. Why are kids scared of snakes but not of flowers? Because your past also includes the history of your evolutionary culture and your ancestors. Most of your life happened without you there. We come into life with all sorts of perceptual inclinations.
You see the meaning of the data based on the context
Why does your leg kick up when hit in the patella? It’s a reflex action. You didn’t need to think about it. The reflex develops because it was useful in the past. Someone pressing on the knee might be dangerous, and you kick up to keep yourself safe.
What you perceive is not what the data/info tells you, but what you perceived before. The history of your past perceptions. You perceive something based on your history of perceiving it.
Your brain technically has an infinite room for possibility. You can imagine anything. But you can’t do big jumps. You can’t go from the middle to the edge in one step. You need to make little steps, towards where you think is the most likely possible.
Your experience gives you your assumptions and biases. Everything that you do is grounded in these assumptions
If the tree falls and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound? No. Because the sound is a construct of your brain. The tree falling creates energy transfer. But the sound is perceived by your brain from the inputs. We colour objects. We colour the world. Colour is not the function of the world itself. We project these meanings even to more complex ideas.
The meanings don’t exist on the screen. You projected meaning onto the shapes, shaped by your own previojs stories, based on your established assumptions.
Every personality you know actually exists inside you, projected outwards.younhave nonway of determining if your perceptions are actually accurate. You are in agreement when your perceived meaning of something is the same as someone’s else’s perceived meaning.
Now recall the incident of the judges. Or the attractive face. Do they really knew it was pupil dilation or a lack of brain glucose that affects heir deciison? No, but they come up with a story to explain it.
Think of everything you know and every piece of information you processed today - eveyrthig has a story to it.
Festenburg - Cognitive dissonance.
We want thing to fit together. We want a common consistent narrative. We find it difficult to process contradictions and complexity (This war criminal actually loved the children in his village, no just want to condemn him to evil. Nelson Mandela and Gandhi had no impure thoughts)
1. Ca y u re d t is?
2. Y u a e not rea ing t is!
3. W at ar you rea in ?
The following lines are missing some letters. Are you able to read them?
3. W at ar you rea in ?
Steve has always been the best basketball player in the neighbourhood. This year, at age16, Steve won best player at the local competition, despite playing against adults. John is seven feet (2.13m) tall. John has just picked up basketball. Who is more likely to end up playing in the NBA?
Dartmouth Scar Experiment (Prof Robert Kleck, Darmouth University)
Dehumanisation of Victims (Prof Albert Bandura, Stanford University)
Room with Learners
Room with Participant
Instructions from Experimenter comes through a reciever
Punishment if answer is wrong
Just before the experiment starts, the receiver is "accidentally" left on; participant can hear the experimenters gossiping about the learners:
"Those folks over there are a real bunch of animals"
"Those folks over there are such a nice bunch of people"
Participant is invited to take part in an experiment on "learning"
Participant is in room A. There are some "learners" in room B.
Learners are asked to answer questions. If they answer incorrectly, the participant is instructed through a receiver to deliver a minor punishment
Just before the experiment begins, the receiver is "accidentally" left on, and participants hear the experimenters gossiping about the learners:
Scenario 1: the instructors call the learners "a real bunch of animals"
Scenario 2: the instructors calls the learners a "nice bunch of people"
Scenario 3: nothing is said
Our views can be easily manipulated
Since story-formulation happens unconsciously
and unknowingly, we sometimes have no idea
how wrong our stories can be. This becomes
clearer as we observe how others formulate their
stories.Check out this clip (1m 38s) from the
super-funny series Yes Minister.
Even though the "learners" were actually accomplices that made the same number of errors in all 3 scenarios (horizontal axis), the reaction of the participant 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 much less than the group with no prior description.
The dehumanised group, the "bunch of animals" was punished much more, for similar levels of performance.
One line of description can lead to us formulating and believing very different stories, independent of what actually happens in reality.
Does evidence and expert opinion change your view?
Cass R. Sunstein, S. Bobadilla-Suarez, S. Lazzaro, and Tali Sharot,
“How People Update Beliefs About Climate Change: Good News and Bad News,”
Participants told: Scientists find new evidence that climate change much more serious than previously thought
Group A Climate Change Believers
Group A: Climate Change Deniers
Participants told: Scientists find new evidence that climate change much less serious than previously thought
Group B: Climate Change Believers
Group B: Climate Change Deniers
Climate Change Believers and Deniers were divided into 2 groups:
Group A were told that after recent evidence, scientists and experts have assessed that climate change is much more serious than previously thought
Group B were told the opposite, that recent evidence shows climate change is much less serious than previously thought
Did people change their beliefs in light of the new expert assessments? Yes and No,
People altered their opinions only if they’d received information that fit their original worldview
Deniers in group A ignored the new evidence, but were now more optimistic about the severity of climate change.
Believers in group A were more disheartened and fearful, while Believers in group B ignored the new evidence
When presented with information, we tend to quickly accept evidence that confirms our existing notions (what are known as prior beliefs) and assess counter-evidence with a critical eye.
In fact, presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view; this is known as the “boomerang effect.” Curiously enough, the more intelligent people are (admittedly by traditional measures like IQ tests), the more and capable they are to rationalize and interpret information at will, and to creatively twist data to fit their opinions. Ironically, intelligence is used not to draw more accurate conclusions, but to find fault in data they are unhappy with.
Have you ever argued with someone, or seen online debates where the more evidence is produced, the more resistant people are?
Where was he born?
Where was Barack Obama born? Somehow, this became a multi-year debate with a large number of conspiracy theories. Even after his full birth certificate was released, polls showed that 13-20% of Americans still do not believe Obama was born in America. It even sparked off its own Wikipedia page, and provided us with hilarious interview segments.
(excerpt from the daily show, full video here)
Video length: 1m 11s
( Leon Festinger, 1957. This is a very famous study that pioneered cognitive dissonance theory.You can read the full paper on their study here. Festinger is the 5th most cited psychologist in the 20th century)
Participants were asked to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour) intended to bore them.
When the tasks were completed, the experimenter appealed to the participant to do a short briefing for the next waiting subject.
Participants were promised a $1 or $20 incentive (randomly assigned) if they told the next waiting subject that the tasks were really interesting.
After the participants had done the briefing, they were asked about their own honest assessment of whether they found the tasks enjoyable:
Those paid $20 openly shared that they found the tasks terribly boring
Those paid $1 shared that they enjoyed the tasks and found them interesting
Why would people paid $1 lie that they enjoyed the tasks, when they clearly didn't.
Well, cognitive dissonance.
All the participants didn't enjoy the tasks.
For those paid $20, the incentive was enough to justify them lying, i.e. "I was willing to tell the new subject it was enjoyable even when I didn't actually think so, because I received a good incentive."
But for those paid $1, it's much harder to convince yourself (and others) why you willingly told a big lie for such a small incentive. The participant faces an internal conflict between what he/she thinks and how he/she has acted, what we term dissonance: "on one hand I thought the tasks were really boring; yet on the other hand I told another person the tasks were really interesting and for just a small sum of $1".
In the event when a tension between their cognition (I didn't want to do this) and their behaviour (I did it), it creates a discomfort that bothers us as human beings. We have to find a way to reduce this tension and the discomfort that comes with it. In this case, the participant paid $1 has already acted by lying to the next subject, i.e. the behaviour has already taken place. Hence, the participants paid $1 reward reduced their dissonance by changing their beliefs i.e. convincing themselves they really thought the tasks were enjoyable.
There are many such examples in our lives:
we want to lose weight yet we end up eating something we shouldn't, so we resolve our dissonance by convincing ourselves it wasn't so bad and you will diet harder and exercise more tomorrow;
we want to make a change in our lives (for example a career change) but we feel scared to make this change, so we convince ourselves that perhaps the opportunity isn't the right one for us.
To reduce our discomfort, sometimes we change our story to become one that is harmonious with how we act.
We sometimes choose comforting lies over unpleasant truths.
Stand upright, with your feet planted on the ground
Turn your body clockwise, as far as it would go.
Now take a few seconds to visualise yourself being able to turn your body further. Imagine yourself being able to turn a full 360 degree circle.
Now try turning your body clockwise once again. Do you notice that you have managed to turn further>
Who's better looking?
Participants were repeatedly flashed the photos of 2 different people, and asked to pick the more physically attractive.
Once they have selected, they were handed the photo they picked,
They were then asked to explain why they chose this person.
At random intervals, the examiner handed them the wrong photo, opposite of what the participant picked.
Most participants did not notice that they were handed the wrong photo.
And they went on to explain why they "picked" the photo, even when they didn't!
What this means:
We create stories to help us explain why we acted or made the decisions that we did.
Coming up with an explanation is as important as the decision or action itself. As this experiment shows, regardless of which photo the participant picked, they want to and will come up with
We are quite capable of
What has been the
There even though the part of our brain processing fear has largely remained the same. Instead of sabretooth tigers, today most of us live in large societies. We fear failure because if there is a chance of failure, i is something we are weak at. Did you have some fear the first time you went on the internet or the first time you drove on the road? probably. But after 100 times, you no longer fear this because we are confident of the outcome.
We fear failure because of uncertaitny. Awfulising. It is easier and nautral for you to think of why you shoudl be fearful than why you should not be fearful.
We also fear failure because of conformity. If someone else has done it before, surely they have put thought into it. What odes it mean if i went against society or what others are doing? And conforming is not always a bad thing. we follow everyone else by brushing our teeth before and after we go to sleep. There's no need for us to re-figure out a path because this works. The problem though is that sometimes we conform even if it doesnt make sense
Fear is automatic. It triggers whether we like it or not.
Fear warns us about uncertainty; you don't fear walkin down the street, but you get fearful and anxious walking in a new
Fear of judgement. We prefer to conform even if it doesn't make sense