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Are stories dangerous?

January 4, 2012

Tyler Cowan, of Marginal Revolution‘s fame, has a TED talk on this subject. Less Wrong has transcribed it:

…we should be suspicious of stories. We’re biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they’re like a kind of candy that we’re fed when we consume political information, when we read novels. When we read nonfiction books, we’re really being fed stories. Nonfiction is, in a sense, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but everything’s taking the same form of these stories.

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like “this” instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly.

I have posted about the dangers of a single story in the past. I think these two concepts go well together. A single story is dangerous because events are complex and there are always multiple actors involved and no one story or single point of view can describe it. So, not only can a single story not do justice to a situation, but neither can multiple stories. Why? Because as Cowan points out above, a story is just a narrative, and narratives tend to strip away the details. We have to understand and realize that stories will never tell the whole picture. And we have to be ok with that.

So, how many IQ points have you lost today?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012 1:03 pm


    This is a great point! Remembering this will help us to see Christ in one another and it will prevent us from ‘demonizing’ others we may be in disagreement with. Most conflict that happens in relationships are not a matter of one person being ‘good’ and the other being ‘evil’. There are complex factors many times. This is really good!


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