What Popular Psychology Books Forget: The Danger of Storytelling
Human beings are simplifiers. Thales thought that everything was made of water; Aristotle thought that all human action was to achieve happiness; Freud thought that all human action was to avoid anxiety; and many religious texts explain the origins of the universe in a few verses. These monisms, however, overlooked a simple axiom: human beings and the world they inhabit are complicated, too complicated, at least, to be adequately summed up aphoristically.
We simplify because we are biologically programmed to rely on journeys, stories and narratives to understand our lives and the world; our cognition is easily seduced by quests, voyages and tales of good versus evil – any of the other so-called seven story-types. A October 2009 StrategyOne poll found that when Americans were asked what metaphor best describes their lives, 51 percent responded with “A Journey,” 11 percent with “A Battle” and 8 percent with “A Novel.” “We have” one author says, “a limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, and arrow of relationship, upon them.”
This cognitive tendency is a good thing most of the time – it helps us understand and organize the world. The byproduct, however, is a naïve conception of the world that tends to be too simple. I’m forgiving most of the time. It’s nearly impossible to not think about life as a journey where a person is a traveler, a purpose is a destination, teachers and coaches are guides and birth denotes a starting point, death an ending point. In English, for instance, we describe ourselves as being “lost”, “found” or “at a crossroads”; we encounter “twists and turns” and manage to “find our way.”
But I am less forgiving when it comes to how people understand brains. In a recent TEDx MidAtlantic, the economist Tyler Cowen gave the best criticism of popular psychology books I’ve heard to date. He explains:
There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.
He’s right. The books, unintentionally I think, reduce human cognition into a monism – ‘go with your gut’, ‘think things through’ or ‘don’t trust your intuition.’ Worst of all, amateur readers tend to use their subtitles as talismans. “I bought this book,” they may claim, “and I will no longer be Predictably Irrational!”
The more accurate picture is that life is a “mess” and psychology – neuroscience to a larger extent – is still relatively young in its endeavors. Experts and enthusiasts know this, but the headlines on CNN.com and some tweets within the psychology twittersphere suggest that most do not; they still try to sum up how human behavior works with a sound bit.
Cowen, on the other hand, suggests that we ought to not fear a messy life. “You’re here for some messy reason or reasons,” he explains, “and maybe you don’t know what it is, and maybe I don’t know what it is.” No need to burn your Tolstoy, just be a bit more messy.
• Check out this excellent video of Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor and researcher at Emory University who studies pseudoscience in psychology