“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an 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 can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In other words, the narrative fallacy is our human tendency to construct a story to fit the situation. It’s how and why we concoct a backstory without knowing even a single detail of the true story.
We do this all the time, watching the news we want to know why that guy did what he did. We want to know how that middle-aged dude ended up working as a barista at our local coffee spot. Or why our coworker is particularly grumpy today. Humans are narrative creatures, we’ve been telling stories since we developed language. The telling of stories in literally entrenched in our DNA.
We want— no, need—to know the WHY.
Did that barista get laid off recently from a high paying executive job and now he needs health care coverage for his family? Or has he been a barista for 20 years?
Did your coworker’s wife leave him last night? Or did he just miss his morning run/coffee/bus?
Putting a story to the behavior/attitude we see in front of us helps us get past it. It helps us get on with our day, without feeling like we should have done something different. What I mean is, would you have treated the barista differently if you knew his wife was sick and that’s why he had to take a lower-paying job with better benefits or hours? Or how about that coworker, would you still have gossiped about him at the water cooler if you found out his kid was kicked out of school and he hadn’t slept a full night in months because that situation is causing his wife so much stress she can’t sleep?
You might be the kind of person who says, “no, of course not. I’m kind by default and would never have gossiped about my coworker no matter what the situation.” And of that’s true, kudos to you. I mean it. But understand that you’re in a minority, most people would react based on the story they just made up as if it were reality.
And the mismatch in behavior that can cause can be catastrophic for our understanding of those around us, and of ourselves.
The key to all of these situations is empathy. Take a moment, breathe, and see if you can feel something of what the other person is feeling. Try to see the world through their eyes, even for just a passing moment. Read their facial expressions and body language. Are the barista’s shoulders slumped forward? He may be carrying the weight of a sick wife and a drastic pay cut. Is your coworker not making eye contact anymore, where he used to be more attentive to those around him? Think of what may be causing that.
We tend to forget one important fact—we just made up the story we’re basing our reaction on.
Once you’ve done this a handful of times you’ll be able to without stopping the progress of your day. You can walk into a room, taking a deep intentional breath as you enter and get a good temperature check of everyone present. That reading is what will tell you if someone is out of sorts, amped up on too much coffee, or if they just forget their report back on their desk and needs a minute to collect their thoughts.
Being in the moment. This simple idea is a solution to lessen the hold Narrative Fallacy has on our daily lives. It’s also a way of being that has interested me for years. It’s why and how I started meditating. It’s how I got through years of uncertain work situations. It’s also how I keep from dwelling on the past. I can’t change what happened that led me to where I am. What I can do is address my present moment.
In no way am I saying that I exist solely in the moment. Far from it. My thinking devolves into ruminating on something said in the past. Or on concocting a plausible-sounding outcome for a project I’m working on. Or even on writing a convincing narrative for why that dude in the SUV cut me off on the way home yesterday—I mean, what an a*hole!
Like Taleb says, the problem stems from the ‘impression of understanding’ that the story we just created colors our interactions with. I have no idea why that guy cut me off. Maybe he was racing to the hospital because his best friend was in a car crash. Maybe he’s running home because he left the stove on. Or maybe he’s just really an a*hole. Whatever the truth of the situation is, stories matter and we tend to forget one important fact—we just made up the story we’re basing our reaction on. And when you realize that, you’re better able to use empathy to get to the real story.