Archive for May 20th, 2012
In his new book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman notes that human beings constantly claim that they understood the past much better than they actually did at the time. Referring to Nissam Taleb’s concept of “narrative fallacy,” Kahneman details how we employ flawed stories from the past to shape our current views of the world. This is not a good thing (though it often feels good while we engage in over-confident reasoning, as pointed out by Robert Burton); the narrative fallacy is a pernicious problem often a dangerous one.
Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories of people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on countless events that failed to happen. Any recent civilian event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing that they are true.
[Page 199]. Human beings strive to create and embrace simple stories that give simple causal accounts based upon general propensities and personality traits. The “halo effect” contributes to this coherence–we tend to assign a generalized valence to other humans, and to assume that those people always act in accordance with our generalized positive or negative characterization of them. In this world, handsome people are also smart, moral and athletic. The halo effect keeps our narratives simple and it leaves little room for true statements such as the following shocker: “Hitler loved dogs and little children.” Our simplistic stories don’t leave room for outlier qualities. We resist the fact that obtuse people are sometimes correct and that the people we admire sometimes act foolishly.