our brains are story telling machines

Our brains are story telling machines

Why do coincidences occur? Why is it that you randomly remembered the girl you used to play with in junior infants  and she suddenly added on Facebook the next day? Isn’t it fascinating? It is easily explained: you thought of hundreds of people that day and one of them just happened to come across you on Facebook. The feeling of a miracle with a deeper meaning remains though – because it makes a good story.

If there’s one thing that we have a lot of, it is information. I belong to the generation that was asked to learn facts in school as if it made a difference. Google was only starting up back then. Now, the landscape is somewhat different. There’s too much information available, so the skill is in making choices on how you use it.

Our brains don’t like working hard, understandably. They have evolved to conserve energy and focus on what’s important. For many of us, the important – safety, shelter and food – is easily accessible. An adaptive response would be to try and retrain our brains to see past this.

The obvious way of dealing with information is by making stories. The media don’t say: “We will run this fact”. They say “We will run this story”. We consume information based on stories. However, this approach is ridden with problems.

It seems that picking out the information to retain – and use in making decisions – is the point at which biases occur. The first step to retraining how we think is to become aware of what’s already there on autopilot.

cognitive biases story telling

To deal with an avalanche of information, we have adapted in the following ways:

  • Availability heuristic. We overestimate the probability that an event will occur if a similar event occurred recently or impacted us emotionally. Anything unusual is worth remembering – and more likely to occur. Ignore the expected”. It’s like Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. A doctor who recently saw a case of TB meningitis will be thinking about this rare cause for every nervous system-related case for months.
  • Base rate neglect. We opt for contextual conclusions that make a better story than what it is actually more likely.“If it makes a good story, it is likely.” Imagine you see a 20 something year old with long hair, tattoos and an attitudinal look. You are then asked, what is the likelihood that he a Christian and what is the likelihood that he is a satan worshipper? People will rate satan worshipper much higher than it is ignoring the fact that there are billions of Christians and very few satan worshippers. This is closely related to the Illusion of validity. We have an unshakeable belief that we can make sense of information, even if there is no sense to be made of it, i.e. it is known to be random. “What story is this data telling me?” Furthermore, when we don’t know something, our brains will plug the difference from our history and our stereotypes. Expectations get confused with reality a lot. “I can’t be wrong” This forms the basis of the placebo effect. The placebo effect always scares me. It’s more than a cognitive error, it actually has a physiological basis. Our brains will literally dampen the pain of an electric shock if we’re expecting it to be a 1/10 when it is actually a 7/10. It also forms the basis of the halo effect: “A good doctor is also a responsible driver.”
  • Anchoring. “It’s only the change that matters, not the absolute value”. We are also emotional about it as is demonstrated by the framing effect: “Is the change good or bad?” Getting caught up in assessing these changes, we lose track of what the actual result is. For example, if we give people the option to sign up now with a discount for earlier registration, they are much less likely to sign up than if you tell them that there is a penalty for signing up later. The money values are all the same, the behaviours are different.
  • Attentional bias. It is the tendency of our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. We only pay more attention to things that interest us than we realise – and ignore things that don’t interest us too. “I am only interested in X and I can ignore Y.” This is how people become infatuated with other people and how the “Law of Attraction” works. If you only focus on the positive, you will only see the positive. It’s a close cousin of the Confirmation bias – which is we pay more attention to information that supports our views. “I prefer data points that agree with me.” The famed Ben Franklin psychological hack, “foot-in-the-door”, is using this. If Harry asks you for a small favour, you are likely to do it – because you are nice. If Harry then asks you to do a bigger favour, you are more likely to do it than if he never asked you for the small favour. What’s happening in your brain is as follows: I’ve already done this guy a favour, hence, I like him. If I like him, surely, I will do another favour. In other words, we are rationalising that we are consistent and looking for reasons to confirm our conclusion. It could be argued that this isn’t irrational though. If you feel like you are building a relationship with a person through these favours, you may be going ahead with them even though you are completely aware of the trick.
  • The illusory truth effect. The more something is repeated to us, the more it becomes true in our minds. “If it’s repeated, it’s true.” It is of course made worse by attentional and confirmation bias leading us into the downward spiral of a nice and resonant echo chamber. Were you, perhaps, surprised that Trump got elected?
  • Mere-exposure effect. We like people and things more when we see them often. “I like you cause you’re around.” Thank God, or there would have been a divorce rate of 100%.
  • Cue-dependent forgetting. We can’t recall information without memory cues. “Oh and remember it was raining outside?” When you are asked about turtles, your brain searches within its repository for “turtles”. A Google search would look through a gazillion files and look for the word “turtles”. This is not how our brains search. Memories are retrieved through association. You will think of the documentary that you saw about soft-shelled turtles in Ussuriland. So far, so good – just like Google. But, that will also pull up memories of who you watched it with and the comfy red jammies you had at the time. Neither of those facts related to turtles according to Google, but they do, according to our brains. If turtles were never brought up, you probably would never have remembered these particular pyjamas you once had.
  • Frequency illusion. We begin to notice something a lot more when we learn about it. “I am shopping for a black BMW, but I just noticed that everyone seems to have one!”
  • Hot-cold empathy gap. It is difficult to relate to an experience when you are in a certain state. “I am not a psychopath, but why are you sad if I am happy?” If you are hungry, it is difficult to focus on anything else. If you are calm, it is hard to imagine what it’s like to have a panic attack.
  • Omission bias. We judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful inactions. “You cannot do this!” Euthanasia gets people much more emotional than letting someone die by not actively treating them with every last option.
  • Picture superiority effect. “A picture says a 1000 words.” It is easier to take information from a picture. This is probably because it builds context – and so tells a story.
  • Naive realism/ naive cynicism. “I see the world like it is, and anyone who thinks I am wrong is biased.” We ignore the fact that we are only looking at the world through a set of filters and lenses.

our brains are story telling machines

Published by

Dr Martina Feyzrakhmanova

I am a hospital doctor and founder of an education platform. The will to power refers mostly to power over yourself. Avid reader and writer of deep introspective blogs.

12 thoughts on “Our brains are story telling machines”

  1. Thank you for sharing all of these thought patterns! I have noticed the “mere-exposure” bias in myself a lot. It really makes me wonder about which opinion I should consider more valid: my first impressions or my conclusions after time has gone by.

    Liked by 1 person

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