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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

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. laz #

    I so agree with this….and that is my story and I am sticking to it….

    January 7, 2012
  2. Tania #

    I don’t agree with this man. if someone is simplifying things and overlooking a lot of discourse analysis and cognitive cientists is him.

    January 7, 2012
  3. Interesting post. Pop psychology is great for highlighting ideas but people seem to forget that these behaviours aren’t easy to change. They are unconscious or simply just completely ingrained in us. They are part of who we are and what makes us human.

    Plus pop psych books clearly have an agenda and are going to select the research that agrees with it.

    January 7, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for the comments.

      @dillytante, I’m not that pessimistic. I think most popular psychology books are motivated by the truth and respect what we know about the brain. They recognize cognitive booby-traps like confirmation bias and do a good job of avoiding them.

      Some self-help books that cherry pick data have more of a just-sell-as-many-books-as-possible agenda. They are the ones that are not very good.

      January 7, 2012
  4. ethnobot #

    Ah, but what stories do best: unsimplify/unravel the interior world, abandon all pretense of linear causality, and connect to each other in unpredictably wild abandon.

    January 7, 2012
  5. “Life is full of lessons which we either learn, or else life really isn’t full, is it?”

    Story is one way of sharing things which may otherwise be unsharable – independent experience, emotion and learning. In today’s ridiculously hectic world, we barely have a chance to experience the events of our own lives in sufficient depth for meaningful growth, let alone trade experiences with others in the context of deep intellectual discourse or analysis. It is a shame if we only come away from a story with a simplified “moral”, but very often that moral may give us information we may have never learned on our own, either due to circumstance or time: life is indeed short. Story has the potential to affect the quality of our lives in positive ways. It is that potential that outweighs the chance that story may tend to oversimplify life at times. And even if it does, life can be an intensely profound and overwhelming thing; sometimes we can only handle it a little bit at a time. If we choose now and again to handle it through story, at least we won’t be doing so alone.

    “Storytelling is a powerful yet underutilized tool for communicating ideas and values, which creates new opportunities for growth and understanding.”

    January 7, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Great comment Vic!

      January 8, 2012
    • stories has been a way for me to share my knowledge, with my daughter. As I did not want her making the same mistakes as me.
      “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late”.
      Hope we remedy this by some good stories 🙂

      January 12, 2012
    • I love a good story. To me, a great story holds up a mirror and shows us who we are, or who we could be, by our reotniacs to and feelings about the characters and their actions. As you say, it reflects the truth of humanity. I don’t think that all great stories are satisfying; in fact I think some of them are quite disturbing because they reveal unpleasant truths about ourselves. I guess I would say that a satisfying story (for me) is one that shows me that I *can* be noble and brave, and that inspires me to greater things.

      December 22, 2012
  6. As a professional storyteller (novelist, primarily) and the adoptive parent of an autistic person, I have different view of storytelling. Both my professional and my parental experience inform that view. One of the things people do badly is understand one another’s reality–the so-called “theory of mind” is imperfect in real life situations, and causes conflicts at many levels. Autistic children are said to have no, or impaired, theory of mind, but the ability of neurotypicals to understand one another–to grasp why someone acts or speaks as they did, and to use that knowledge to communicate well–isn’t all that great.

    Stories can provide secondary experience from within viewpoints alien to the reader. This can range from the physical (having grown up in a climate without ice or snow, I knew when I moved to a “normal temperate climate” that snow was cold, that ice was slippery; when I visited cities about which I had read, I recognized landmarks) to the intellectual, to the emotional. Stories allow readers to explore their own actions and motivations, comparing them to those of characters in stories….to begin to understand why other people act as they do. Why stories work better than lectures is not completely understood–certainly not at the neurological level–but demonstrable, perhaps most starkly so in parenting an autistic child. The moment at which the child “catches on” to the reasoning of a character is the moment that “theory of mind” gears begin to mesh. And the stories a child tells himself/herself reveal the level of development theory of mind has reached.

    Can the stories we tell ourselves go wrong? Yes–of course–any mental process can go wrong. But the stories an individual tells–and prefers to use in explaining life–are usually similar to those the individual prefers to read or listen to—or, in some circumstances, those to which the individual has been exposed. Stories we tell ourselves can also go very right, whether we make them up or incorporate stores read or heard as patterns for a bridge across some difficulty. As a species, humans are pattern-makers and story-tellers. So attempting to banish stories won’t work…storytelling is, apparently, part of the hard-wiring of the system. Providing children with better stories (not moralistic–but stories that help them find useful ways of coping with reality) and paying attention to damaging stories people tell themselves would be better.

    January 7, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for your comment Emoon.

      The only thing I would add is that people actually do a really good job of understanding another’s reality. We’re not perfect, but compared to all other species out there, humans are pretty remarkable in their understanding of each other. I think we are the only species that even has a theory of mind (some debate about that though)

      Also, I am not sure if you are excusing me of this, but I am certainly not attempting to banish stories – remember, you don’t have to burn your Tolstoy.

      January 8, 2012
  7. …ah! He’s tellin’ the “Life’s-a-mess” story! 😉

    May 31, 2012
  8. Great entry, Chris.Eire, I agree that not all stories are saifsiytng on an emotional level, but I think that story structure is about making a story make sense on a logical, chain-of-events level. Everybody gets annoyed when a story makes a big point of something that doesn\’t come back later, or introduces a new concept at the last minute that solves everything. And people get upset when a character who is tragically fated (emotionally unsaifsiytng) gets whisked away. To me, the kind of satsifcation that Chris mentions above come from is about story sense more than story emotion.And just to expand on that idea a little, I think that\’s what all forms of dramatic structure strive to represent. Not that a story must exist within their confines to work, but that they must be the skeleton of a story, underneath its flesh, for the story to be appealing. Also, I think people find endings very, very saifsiytng, whether they are good or bad. Life is full of beginnings and middles, but it\’s very, very difficult to tell when something has ended. You probably won\’t know for sure until years down the line. Not so in story telling. A bit of the human experience is unveiled and our characters are left to live with the revelation.This is why sequels where writers go back on something that was resolved in the first movie DRIVE ME NUTS. ALLCAPS STYLE. If you can\’t find a new, interesting conflict for those characters to thrive in, with the changed nature of their relationships in tact, you haven\’t really found a story worth bringing them back for. That\’s my opinion, anyway.

    December 20, 2012
    • The school you are honpig to attend and see if they have to attend and see if they do they will have to attend and see if they will have to attend and see if they have to accept them.

      February 7, 2013
    • s1QseG bvcpkskmckng

      February 8, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. What Popular Psychology Books Forget: The Danger of Storytelling … | Books Palace
  2. What I’m Reading Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | Rationally Thinking Out Loud
  3. What Popular Psychology Books Forget: The Danger of Storytelling … « About Psychology

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