“What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing.”
H. L. Mencken
Debby Boone released “You Light Up My Life” in 1977 and it became a #1 hit, the most successful single of the 1970s and won her a Grammy. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Anyway, at the song’s climax, she proclaims her love for the unnamed object of her desire and earnestly intones that “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”
Any parent of teenagers recognizes how dangerous such a claim can be and anyone who ever was a teenager and has the slightest bit of self-awareness can recognize that the claim is utterly false. Lots of things feel really, really right at the time but are really, really wrong. Yet no matter how ludicrous the claim obviously is and how clearly we see its falsity in moments of sanity, we follow its dictates time and again. As John Junor famously expressed it, “an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.”
On our better days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles and by tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators. The problem is what Stephen Colbert (who began his new late-night television venture this week) described as “truthiness” on his first episode of The Colbert Report a decade ago (watch it here). It’s the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if it’s not necessarily true or perhaps false.
“Truthiness” captures how, as cognitive psychologist Eryn Newman puts it, “smart, sophisticated people” can go astray on matters of fact. Newman’s research has shown that the less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems. In one classic study, for example, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast as opposed to low contrast. Easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols (such as KAR) perform better in the markets than their difficult-to-pronounce counterparts (such as RDO) — even after just one day of trading. And, astonishingly, claims attributed to people with easy-to-pronounce names were deemed more credible than those attributed to people with difficult-to-pronounce names. As summarized by Katy Waldman: “When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it — whether or not we should.” In a sort of psychological immune response (George Johnson’s evocative phrase), people routinely reject ideas they consider harmful. Indeed, one veteran TV news producer describes that industry’s entire model as “preconceived storytelling.” As in The Wire, “once you’re in it you’re in it,” even if it’s based on a lie.
And the best way to invoke truthiness, to get us in with what feels right but maybe isn’t, is with a good story. We all respond to what moves us emotionally in the context of the narratives we believe and wish to be true. Advocates of every sort have recognized that reality from time immemorial. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that it is more effective to appeal to anti-vaxxers through their emotions, with stories and pictures of children sick with measles, the mumps or rubella — a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise. As George Johnson wrote last month in The New York Times: “Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the ‘dominant paradigm’ — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version” – what Robin Ince calls a “reality tunnel.”
Therefore, for those who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid entitlement and racism at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during a spring break party at an off-campus rental house. Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains intact for many because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and the narrative is still deemed true in general – just not in this instance.
Accordingly, for true believers, the players still weren’t very good guys despite their exoneration and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause. Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backwards to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so routinely supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past because the usual allegiances had been flipped. They became civil libertarians for just this once. But you didn’t see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by that same corrupt prosecutor but who didn’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.
On the other hand, for those who believed in a certain type of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city, the 1989 Central Park jogger case and the poor black teenagers falsely accused of a horrific crime — “wilding,” beating and raping a young Salomon Brothers investment banker in New York City to within an inch of her life — those charges rang true too. Five particular defendants were convicted in 1990 for the attack and served prison sentences from six to 13 years. These convictions were vacated in 2002 when an imprisoned serial rapist and killer admitted that he had raped the jogger, a claim confirmed by DNA testing. Last year New York finally settled with these defendants for $41 million dollars; claims against the State of New York are still pending.
Thus, for true believers, the sort of people at whom the Willie Horton ad was directed, the defendants were bad kids who did a lot of very bad stuff on the night in question even if they weren’t guilty of the specific rape for which they were convicted. For others, police misconduct was evident from the start. As Harlem pastor Calvin Butts told The New York Times, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round-up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.” And as in the Duke case, the facts didn’t turn out to fit the alleged crimes but the underlying narratives were fully exonerated in the eyes of partisans.
To move to a more recent story, consider a police officer defending Ferguson, Missouri’s dreadful record of systematic bias in the wake of “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” The Justice Department’s numbers are “skewed,” he said. “You can make those numbers fit whatever agenda you want.” On the other hand, even though the Justice Department separately determined that the Michael Brown shooting (ground zero for what became the “Black Lives Matter” movement) was justified, as The New Yorker reported, “Although [the] story proved to be at odds with the Justice Department’s findings, the narrative had taken hold—and, for many Americans, it has endured. In part, this is because [the] story was eminently plausible.” Meanwhile, a protestor told The New Yorker that “he believed that Brown was in ‘surrender mode’ when [the police officer] shot him. When we spoke, he admitted that he had not yet read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. It was hard not to notice a parallel: both [sides] had turned to the report that buttressed their own world view. It was as if the two Justice Department reports had come to present opposing realities.”
Ideally, our stories provide well-told truth but that isn’t the norm. All too few of us let the facts get in the way of a good story and the actual facts don’t matter all that much to our decision-making. Our favored narratives control to an astonishing degree. Significantly, stories are truth agnostic. They are not truth-delivery vehicles; they are belief-delivery vehicles.
It is hardly a coincidence then that we think of stories as make-believe since stories powerfully create, focus and internalize our various intellectual and emotional commitments. We use stories to interpret facts rather than basing our stories on the facts. Facts without interpretation are useless, after all, and stories provide our most significant interpretive framework. Due to our affinity for like-minded people, we seek out the people like us to provide echo chambers for our own stories and claims, claims that perpetuate themselves every time we hear them reverberated back to us. We are neuro-chemically confirmation bias addicts. As such, we tend to reach our conclusions first. Only thereafter do we gather purported facts and, even then, see those facts in such a way as to support our pre-conceived stories and conclusions.
As I often say, we like to think of ourselves as judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to objective and well-founded conclusions. Instead, we cut straight to the chase. We are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence we can exploit to support our preconceived notions, narratives and allegiances. To make matters worse, the amount of effort required to refute nonsense is at least an order of magnitude larger than the effort needed to produce it.
We love stories, true or not, almost from the cradle. Stories are crucial to how we make sense of reality. They help us to explain, understand and interpret the world around us. They also give us a frame of reference we can use to remember the concepts we take them to represent. Whether measured by my grandchildren begging for one (or “just” one more), the book industry, data visualization, television, journalism (which reports “stories”), the movies, the parables of Jesus, photography, video games, country music (“every song tells a story”), or even bullsh!t (which frequently uses narrative to convey a certain impression without concern about whether anything at all is actually true, as explained by Jon Stewart during his final appearance on The Daily Show), story is perhaps the overarching human experience. It’s how we think and respond. We always want to know what happens next. In the film When Harry Met Sally, Harry talks about reading the end of a book every time he gets a new one because he thinks he’s going to die before he can finish. Moreover, we explain who we are via stories, the so-called narrative self. One of the great horrors of Alzheimer’s disease is that it erases the narrative that we have in our heads about who we are.
Stories are culture’s way of teaching us what is important. They are what allow us to imagine what might happen next – and beyond – so as to prepare for it. We are hardwired to respond to story. A good story doesn’t feel like a story – it feels exactly like real life, but most decidedly is not like real life. It is simplified and otherwise altered. We prefer rhetorical grace and an emotional charge to the work of hard thought. Because we are inveterate simplifiers, we prefer clean and clear narrative to messy reality. A famous book by Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, pretty well demolished the popular notion that history is a narrative, that it has a shape, a progression, and follows laws of development. But we believe that it does (or devoutly wish to believe that it does) anyway.
Still, because it feels so true, it isn’t hyperbole to say you’ve been lost in a story. Story turns us into willing students, eager to learn the story’s message. It’s how we sift through the raw data of our lives to ascertain what matters. Our brains are designed to analyze the environment, pick out the important parts, and use those bits to extrapolate linearly and simplistically about and into the future.
Ultimately, the key to a good story isn’t just what happens or to whom it happens. As Roger Ebert so eloquently put it, broadened ever so slightly, a story “is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it.” Stories are about how the protagonist changes and how we react to those changes and ourselves change. We can “see” the world as it isn’t (yet) but as it might become.
The best stories are simple, easily communicated, easily grasped and easily remembered. Perhaps most significantly, we inherently prefer narrative to data — often to the detriment of our understanding. To do math, neither maturity nor knowledge of human nature and experience are required. All that is required is the ability to perceive patterns, logical rules and linkages. But because of the enormous sets of random variables involved in real life, patterns, logical rules and linkages alone do not solve any actual puzzles. Correlation does not imply causation. Information may be cheap but meaning is both expensive and elusive.
As Nassim Taleb explains in The Black Swan, the narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an (often erroneous) explanation into them or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity often goes wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
Megan McArdle neatly summed things up.
We like studies and facts that confirm what we already believe, especially when what we believe is that we are nicer, smarter and more rational than other people. We especially like to hear that when we are engaged in some sort of bruising contest with those wicked troglodytes — say, for political and cultural control of the country we both inhabit. When we are presented with what seems to be evidence for these propositions, we don’t tend to investigate it too closely. The temptation is common to all political persuasions, and it requires a constant mustering of will to resist it.
Consider the iconic Stephen Stills protest song, For What It’s Worth (yes, that’s Stills, Jim Messina, David Crosby and Neil Young – The Buffalo Springfield – introduced in 1967 by Peter Tork of The Monkees in the video below)(there’s an interesting Dave Matthews cover here; one from The Muppets here; a cool one from Mia Borders here; Ozzy Osbourne here; the wonderful Lucinda Williams here; a recent one from Loose Cattle with Lynn Drury here; the great Burton Cummings here; Led Zeppelin here; Rush here; Rise Against here; Tom Petty here; a haunting acoustic version from The Lone Bellow here; Ernie Hendrickson and Anne Harris here; one from The Staples Singers here; a Mavis Staples solo version here; Bonnie Raitt here; a Crosby, Stills & Nash live version here; and a solo version by Stephen Stills here).
The focus is on the “battle lines being drawn … young people speaking their minds getting so much resistance from behind” while presumably speaking the truth. That’s a crucial part of our most prevalent 60s narrative (along with peace, protest, love and Rock & Roll) even though it was also the most prolific period of domestic terrorism in our history and we’ve pretty much erased that from our collective memory. Even so, note that the protestors are “carrying signs” that “mostly say ‘hooray for our side.’” Even in our best moments we’re often partisan confabulators. Stills gets it just right.
Once we have bought-in to a particular narrative we’re mostly cheering our side on rather than doing substantive analysis. Our favored narratives become increasingly more difficult to falsify, even (especially!) when presented with contradicting fact. Take the example of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children and the pediatricians who try to convince them otherwise. When presented with unequivocal information that autism diagnosis and vaccinations were not linked, the strategy backfired and parents became more set in their ignorance. In other words, the disconfirming facts offered actually (in effect) turned up the volume inside the echo chamber such that the truth could not be heard.
The more we repeat and reiterate our explanatory narratives, the harder it is to recognize evidence that ought to cause us to re-evaluate our prior conclusions. By making it a careful habit skeptically to re-think our prior interpretations and conclusions, we at least give ourselves a fighting chance to correct the mistakes that we will inevitably make. As with everything in science, each conclusion we draw must be tentative and subject to revision when the facts so demand. As John Maynard Keynes famously didn’t say (but should have — thanks Jason Zweig), “When the facts change, I change my mind.” If we are optimistic, like the great playwright Tom Stoppard, we can aspire not to be “trapped in our narrative.” Yet, sadly for us, most of the time “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”