The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Last week I randomly broke out into full body hives. So strange. I’ve never been allergic to anything. My eyes don’t get itchy with the turn of the season. Dust doesn’t really make me sneeze. When someone says Allegra, I only think of Kevin James’ love interest from the movie Hitch. Pollen who? You get the point…
I thought things were under control until I woke up Thursday morning with a swollen face and throat, freaked out, and went to the ER. I’m fine now, on steroids and not-so-patiently waiting for these hives to go away. But I share this experience because it made me question reality.
Okay, not like question reality...is this a simulation/what is the meaning of life-type-of-thing. But I was questioning my understanding of what I thought I knew to be true:
If I, Shivani — who is allergic to nothing — am having an allergic reaction, I’m very obviously not allergic to nothing.
I was grasping for an explanation to make sense of it all. I blamed the Trader Joe’s blueberries, the air from the window I left open the night before, that one spider I was too scared to kill...maybe it bit me. I was crafting stories in my head to help me understand why this was happening.
It made me think of this idea that I had some time back, about how human beings craft stories in their heads to make sense of life’s randomness. Or, in other words, how we are meaning-making creatures.
“Meaning” can mean different things.
There is the capital-M Meaning, as in what is the meaning of my life? Meaning can also mean understanding, which is our mind filling in the blanks (for example, Kanizsa’s Triangle). Similarly, there is the definition implying causality or rationale, as in why did x happen?
Today, I’m referring to a combination of the latter two.
We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world around us. It feels natural, but creates an adverse effect: we rarely stop to question what we “know” to be true based off of these stories
But maybe we should.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of biases — preconceived notions that we may or may not be aware of that impact how we think, speak, and interact with others. Nowadays, workplaces even make us take trainings on biases so we don’t think the new kid is incapable of certain tasks just because he’s young.
The understanding of biases was largely brought to the mainstream by behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He ran experiments that revealed the biases we all share. Things like:
confirmation bias: when we seek out or interpret information that validates thoughts or opinions we already have
For example, placing a stronger emphasis on a negative news headline about a celebrity you dislike
in-group bias: when we give preferential treatment to people who we feel like belong to the same group as us
For example, offering an interview to a subpar candidate just because she went to your alma mater
While this research in and of itself is interesting — a lens into how our brains work — what I found even more intriguing is the “why”.
Why do we have biases in the first place? The underlying principle is our tendency to find causal relationships in randomness. Whether we care to admit it or not, most of life’s events occur at random.
But, we need the events in our life to make sense — to have happened for a reason, even when no reason exists. As a result, we come up with an explanation to make meaning of the information we are given.
Here’s an example from Thinking Fast and Slow of how Kahneman makes the case for this:
“A study of new diagnoses of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States reveals a remarkable pattern. The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is lowest are mostly rural, sparsely populated and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.”
As you read this, you probably thought that this makes sense. Low incidences of cancer in rural living is intuitive, because the air is cleaner and you’re just eating what you grow. It’s healthy. It’s how we all should live.
But, what if Kahneman changed a single word in the prompt above:
“A study of new diagnoses of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States reveals a remarkable pattern. The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is highest are mostly rural, sparsely populated and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.”
If presented with this statistical statement, your reaction might shift. You may think — well, of course. People living in rural areas see higher rates of poverty, so they have unhealthier meals, and this could totally be a cause of cancer.
Did you notice how quickly your mind jumped from one explanation to the polar opposite?
This is our brain looking to make meaning.
As Kahneman points out in study after study, our brains easily craft narratives like this because there is comfort in believing that we understand the world around us. The alternative is to accept randomness, and we often just don’t want to accept that dangerously existential reality.
Why are we anti-randomness?
Morgan Housel, investor and author, peels back an additional layer on the idea of randomness in his book, Psychology of Money. Why is it that we don’t feel comfortable accepting randomness? It comes down to our need for control as a proxy for safety.
“Wanting to believe that we are in control is an emotional itch that needs to be scratched, rather than an analytical problem to be calculated and solved. The illusion of control is more persuasive than the reality of uncertainty. So we cling to stories about outcomes being in our control...Everyone has an incomplete view of the world. But we form a complete narrative to fill in the gaps.”
A lot of the explanations we come up with are nothing more than conjecture. By grounding ourselves so deeply in the idea that “everything happens for a reason”, we push ourselves further and further away from accepting a single fact impacting us all: life is random. And while we think we have control over life’s events, none of us really do.
The Dangers of Our Stories
There is something really beautiful to me about our minds operating with the emotional quotient of making meaning. It gives us a sense of purpose and allows us to believe that our lives matter. With that said, there is also danger in crafting a story where one doesn’t exist.
When we rely on the convenient story that we’ve told ourselves, we rarely stop to think critically about our understanding of reality. In this way, we value a sense of control over truth. It makes us think we have the explanation, not an explanation. This type of thinking can cause us to overvalue surface level connections and overlook deeper relationships. What’s more is that oftentimes, there is no explanation to even be had.
The effects of this can be as trivial as social media rabbit holes or not seeking proper care for an allergic reaction (totally hypothetical, of course) and as significant as keeping under-informed political or social views.
When’s the last time you stopped to question something you know to be true?
Stories by Shiv is part of Wayfinder, a writer collective exploring questions that matter.