If stories are lies why do they work?

January 16, 2020 โ€” I often rail against narratives. I think stories always oversimplify things, have hindsight bias, and often mislead. I spend a lot of time trying to invent tools for making data derived thinking as effortless as narrative thinking (so far, mostly in vain). And yet, as much as I rail on stories, I have to admit stories work.

I read an article that put it more succinctly:

Why storytelling? Simple: nothing else works.

I would agree with that. Despite the fact that 90% of stories are lies, they motivate people better than anything else. Stories make people feel something. They get people going.

What is the math here? On a population level, it seems people who follow stories have a survival advantage. On a local level, it seems people who can weave stories have an even greater survival advantage.


Perhaps it's due to risk taking. Perhaps the people who follow stories take more risks, on average, than people who don't, and even though many of those don't pan out some of those risks do pay off and the average is worth it.

Perhaps it's due to productivity. Perhaps people who are storiers spend less time analyzing and more time doing. The act of doing generates experience (data), so often the best way to be data-driven isn't to analyze more it's to go out there and do more to collect more data. As they say in machine learning, data trumps algorithms.

Perhaps it's due to focus. If you just responded to your senses all the time the world is a shimmering place, and perhaps narratives are necessary to get anything done at all.

Perhaps it's due to memory. A story like 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' is shorter and more memorable than 'Table of Results from a Randomized Experiment on the Effect of False Alarms on Subsequent Human Behavior'.

Perhaps it's healthier. Our brains are not much more advanced than the chimp. Uncertainty can create stress and anxiety. Perhaps the confidence that comes from belief in a story leads to less stress and anxiety leading to better health, which outweighs any downsides from decisions that go against the data.

Perhaps it's a cooperation advantage. If everyone is analyzing their individual decisions all the time, perhaps that comes at the cost of cooperation. Storiers go along with the group story, and so over time their populations get more done together. Maybe the opposite of stories isn't truth, it's anarchy.

Perhaps it's just more fun. Maybe stories are suboptimal for decision making and lead us astray all the time, and yet are still a survival advantage simply because it's a more enjoyable way to live. Even when you screw up royally, it can make a good story. As the saying goes, "don't take life too seriously, you'll never make it out alive."

Despite my problems with narratives and my quest for something better, it seems quite possible to me that at the end of the day it may turn out that there is nothing better, and it's best to make peace with stories, despite their flaws. And regardless of the future, I can't argue with the value of stories today for motivation and enjoyment. Nothing else works.


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