1. We automatically create stories to explain what is happening in our lives
This is the first 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
I'm not a big fan of superheroes. And feeling satiated after finishing most of the popcorn, I promptly fell asleep for most of one of the Avengers movies. That was until I was awoken by the muffled sobbing of a couple of friends around me. Apparently, Ironman or Spiderman (or one of the Mans) died. I was pretty appalled by the audacity of these folks you know, sobbing and all. I was sleeping really blissfully! And here's the main thing: Ironman isn't real!
This is a great example of how much our brains are attuned to stories and how much stories impact our lives. Stories are the way we make sense of the world. We remember and convey the majority of information in story form. We explain our decisions and choices with stories. When we believe in a story, it can lead to heavy emotional investment. And these stories, in turn, shape how we then look at the world, and our place and our identity in it. On a bigger scale, shared stories are what allow large groups of humans to establish norms and function as societies, or even across nations. 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 religion. The story of religion is so powerful that we can live or die for a reward in our "next lives (if it happens, I'm atheist").
Science: Gravity was discovered because of the apple that fell on Newton (in fact, this is a great example of an inaccurate story. Newton knew about gravity why the apple fell; he just didn't know how gravity worked)
Money: Perhaps the most powerful story of them all, because everyone believes in money, even though they are mere pieces of paper or in this case digital figures. And we believe in money issued by other countries carried by people we never visited or never knew, trusting that piece of paper is really 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)
Video is 1 min long
Let's try a very simple experiment. Take a look a the video above. 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... And... you formulated a story about the 3 objects based on these personalities. You might even have developed a small dose of emotions for the shapes.
Now let's say you are invited to explain what you've seen. You'll find that it is very difficult for you to describe it factually. You would explain it in the form of a story, with words like "escape", "hide", "attacked", "chased".
You're not alone. This video is an experiment that has been conducted since 1944. And for over 75 years, people from all walks of life across different generations formulated their own stories after seeing the 3 objects and explained it as such.
Let's take a look at another example:
Experiment: Who's better looking?
(Dr Moran Cerf, Northwestern University)
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.
- Same model in both pictures above
- Yet overwhelmingly, people thought that the picture on the right is more attractive.
- When asked to explain their choice, people always formulated a story to explain their choice: the one on the right has a brighter or more confident smile, or she has a more defined jawline.
- The only difference between the 2 pictures is that the one on the right has dilated pupils. Our brain is naturally wired to prefer pupil dilation. Even though we can't consciously tell if someone's pupils are dilated, our subconscious brain is able to and makes the decision for us without us noticing.
- In other words, we didn't know why we preferred the photo on the right. Yet when asked to explain, we just formulated a story out of nothing.
Another example.. The graph below shows the consent rate of different countries for organ donation after death. You can see the rate of consent on the vertical axis, and the different countries examined on the horizontal axis.
Similar to the previous example, when asked why they decided to consent or not consent to donate their organs after death, people often came up with a story to explain their decision:
I do think it's important to donate my organs, but I am worried if the hospital will handle it properly; or
I think donating my organs is very important for medical purposes and I'm all for it.
Yet, as the graph shows, whether people consent to donate their organs is overwhelmingly due to one thing:
what is the default option?
If the default is opt-in (your organs will not be donated unless you choose to do so), you are significantly more likely to consent to donate your organs than if the default is opt-out (your organs will be donated unless you choose not to). But no one considered the reason for the decision to be the nature of the form, opt-in or opt-out. As humans, we are so used to coming up with a story to explain our decisions that sometimes, we formulate a story even if that's not why we actually made the decision.
So story formulation comes very naturally to us. When we have to understand or explain something, we formulate stories. But even with just a picture or a few words, we can formulate our own stories. Take a look at the pictures below, of world leaders at the same G7 meeting. But notice how different countries chose different pictures of the meeting? And more importantly, how we develop a different story of who was in charge just based on which picture we see?