We make up stories in our minds and then against all evidence, defend them tooth and nail. Understanding why we do this is the key to discovering truth and making wiser decisions.
Our brains are quirky.
When I put my hand on a hot stove, I have instantly created awareness of a cause and effect relationship—“If I put my hand on a hot stove, it will hurt.” I’ve learned something fundamental about the world. Our brains are right to draw that conclusion. It’s a linear relationship, cause and effects are tightly coupled, feedback is near immediate, and there aren’t many other variables at play.
The world isn’t always this easy to understand. When cause and effect aren’t obvious, we still draw conclusions. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers an example of how our brains look for, and assume, causality:
“After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.”
That’s all you get. No background on Jane, or any particulars about where she went. Kahneman presented this miniature story to his test subjects hidden among several other statements. When Kahneman later offered a surprise recall test, “the word pickpocket was more strongly associated with the story than the word sights, even though the latter was actually in the sentence while the former was not.” 1
What happened here?
There’s a bug in the evolutionary code that makes up our brains. We have a hard time distinguishing between when cause and effect is clear, as with the hot stove or chess, and when it’s not, as in the case of Jane and her wallet. We don’t like not knowing. We also love a story.
Our minds create plausible stories. In the case of Jane, many test subjects thought a pickpocket had taken her wallet, but there are other possible scenarios. More people lose wallets than have them stolen. But our patterns of beliefs take over, such as how we feel about New York or crowds, and we construct cause and effect relationships. We tell ourselves stories that are convincing, cheap, and often wrong. We don’t think about how these stories are created, whether they’re right, or how they persist. And we’re often uncomfortable when someone asks us to explain our reasoning.
Imagine a meeting where we are discussing Jane and her wallet, not unlike any meeting you have this week to figure out what happened and what decisions your organization needs to make next.
You start the meeting by saying “Jane’s wallet was stolen. Here’s what we’re going to do in response.”
But one person in the meeting, Micky, Jane’s second cousin, asks you to explain the situation.
You volunteer what you know. “After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.” And you quickly launch into improved security measures.
Micky, however, tells herself a different story, because just last week a friend of hers left his wallet at a store. And she knows Jane can sometimes be absentminded. The story she tells herself is that Jane probably lost her wallet in New York. So she asks you, “What makes you think the wallet was stolen?”
The answer is obvious to you. You feel your heart rate start to rise. Frustration sets in.
You tell yourself that Micky is an idiot. This is so obvious. Jane was out. In New York. In a crowd. And we need to put in place something to address this wallet issue so that it doesn’t happen again. You think to yourself that she’s slowing the group down and we need to act now.
What else is happening? It’s likely you looked at the evidence again and couldn’t really explain how you drew your conclusion. Rather than have an honest conversation about the story you told yourself and the story Micky is telling herself, the meeting gets tense and goes nowhere.
The next time you catch someone asking you about your story and you can’t explain it in a falsifiable way, pause, and hit reset. Take your ego out of it. What you really care about is finding the truth, even if that means the story you told yourself is wrong.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011