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Our Brains are wired for Story

  1. We naturally create stories to help make sense of what is happening in our lives. 

  2. However, sometimes the stories we create are inaccurate, based on limited or incorrect information, and prior assumptions.

  3. Once we have created a story, it become very difficult to change our minds. We look for evidence to confirm our stories. 

  4. Each story we create carries assumptions and biases, which affects subsequent stories.

  5. The stories we create shape our decisions, our identities, and how we view the world.

1. We automatically create stories to explain what is happening in our lives

Stories are the way we make sense of the world.  We remember and convey the majority of information in story form. In fact, shared stories are what allows humans to understand one another. Think about the stories behind:

Religion: there is a heaven after death, and believing in something gets you there. People from different cultures and races can go to the same heaven if you believe the same thing. 

Science: Gravity - the apple that fell on Newton; E=MC^2 - What Einstein is famous for....

Money: Mere pieces of paper, even issued by other countries, are worth the number that is written on it. 

(Yuval Noah Harari's excellent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, provides more examples of humans and story-telling)

images (3).jpg

Try This!

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.  You might even have developed 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 take a look at another example:
 

Experiment: Who's better looking?
(Dr Moran Cerf, Northwestern University)

2 faces.png

The experiment:

  • Participants were shown photos of 2 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, the opposite of what the participant picked

  • Most participants did not notice that they were handed the wrong photo. 

  • They went on to formulate a story of 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.

  • Often, coming up with a story of explanation is as important as the decision or action itself. And as this experiment shows, regardless of which photo the participant picked, we are able to formulate a story to justify our choices. 

What stories are we formulating about our lives? And could these stories be wrong? 

2. Because we create stories so naturally, some of the stories we create are not accurate, based on little or incorrect info, and influenced by prior biases. 

download (4).jpg

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, traveling 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?

Well the conclusion about politicians might not be inaccurate. But have we formulated the stories correctly? 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 has always been the best basketball player in the neighbourhood. This year, at age 16, 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?

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 helps us formulate a story - he is very good at basketball, and there is proof . 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 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)

Dartmouth Scar Experiment (Prof Robert Kleck, Darmouth University)

1pc Temporary Tattoo, Scar, Face Stitche
  • Participants were placed into rooms with no mirrors

  • Participants were told that a make-up artist would draw an ugly scar on their face

  • Once the scar was drawn, participants were given a short glimpse of it

  • Participants were then told to interact with strangers, and observe how strangers responded to them while wearing the scar make-up

  • Before they left the room, the make-up artist told the participants that they would apply a final coat of powder to prevent the scar from smearing. But what the artist actually did was to remove the make-up scar. 

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

  • Participants overwhelmingly reported that people stared at their "scars" and were mean and rude to them. 

Dehumanisation of Victims (Albert Bandura, Stanford University)

Bandura part1.png
  • 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

bandura.moraldisengage.5_small.gif

Results:

  • 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 cause us to formulate a story about a person we have never met. And our story of this person could differ very drastically, just by what we heard, even if there was no difference in his/her actual behaviour.  

Libre Baskerville is a classic font with a modern twist. It's easy to read on screens of every shape and size, and perfect for long blocks of text.

1. Once we have created a story, it become very difficult to change our minds. We look for evidence to confirm our stories. 

Stories are the way we make sense of the world.  We remember and convey the majority of information in story form. In fact, shared stories are what allows humans to understand one another. Think about the stories behind:

Religion: there is a heaven after death, and believing in something gets you there. People from different cultures and races can go to the same heaven if you believe the same thing. 

Science: Gravity - the apple that fell on Newton; E=MC^2 - What Einstein is famous for....

Money: Mere pieces of paper, even issued by other countries, are worth the number that is written on it. 

(Yuval Noah Harari's excellent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, provides more examples of humans and story-telling)

images (3).jpg

Try This!

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.  You might even have developed 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 take a look at another example:
 

Experiment: Who's better looking?
(Dr Moran Cerf, Northwestern University)

2 faces.png

The experiment:

  • Participants were shown photos of 2 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, the opposite of what the participant picked

  • Most participants did not notice that they were handed the wrong photo. 

  • They went on to formulate a story of 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.

  • Often, coming up with a story of explanation is as important as the decision or action itself. And as this experiment shows, regardless of which photo the participant picked, we are able to formulate a story to justify our choices. 

What stories are we formulating about our lives? And could these stories be wrong? 

Try This!

Stand up on your feet. Point straight ahead with your right hand. 
With your feet staying still turn clockwise to your right as far as you can. Notice where you're pointing. 

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