Why We Love Stories and Why It Could Destroy Us
Of Fiction and Fantasyland
ONCE UPON A TIME
A long, long time ago. In a land far, far away. Back when the world was young. In the beginning, some things were not quite finished. In the beginning, was the word.
Humans love stories. We are hard-wired to — our minds demonstrate a distinct narratological bias. We use stories to make sense of the world. When we cannot understand something, we use stories to explain it to ourselves, and each other.
Stories are highly simplified cause and effect models of an inherently unpredictable reality. We tend to incorrectly infer direct causality when there is systemic causality or just correlation.
Stories are everywhere because everything is literally complex, the product of many things interoperating and creating endlessly emergent effects.
Complexity is anathema to brains that evolved to understand linear cause and effect on the African savanna because it means everything is subject to, and we are subjects of, chance.
The idea that the universe is inherently unpredictable is terrifying. So we tell stories where every action has a positive or negative consequence. Good and evil. Myths and fables, heaven and hell.
Stories take aspects of ourselves and exaggerate them. Greek Gods and Monsters, Angels and Devils, are only ever idealized aspects of the complexity of humanity, capable of both compassion and cruelty.
“A myth is the product of contradicting values which exist in every culture”
STORIES ABOUT STORIES
Every story is, ultimately, about stories. [All media texts are reflexive.]
Camille Henrot’s artwork Grosse Fatigue is a story about stories. It collates origin myths from many different cultures and then renders them in a uniquely modern way, using screen based navigation to portray informationally dense stimulus that can be watched again and again, mashed up from various tales and texts.
The first stories — origin myths — were explanatory fictions.
All cultures have them, different in form but not in function: where did life, the universe, and everything come from?
We have a cognitive bias towards narrative because we live and act in real time in a world that is inherently unpredictable — and we desperately want it to be predictable, because making predictions gives us a sense of control.
Humans need to feel a sense of agency, or control, or they tend to get very depressed because if nothing you do can guarantee any outcome, why bother doing anything at all?
“Learned helplessness is further defined as the “giving up reaction” or “quitting response” that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter or doesn’t change things. Feelings of Helplessness =Depression.”
Stories are also devices for learning, for encoding cause and effect among human affairs, for explaining how societies reward or punish certain behaviors. In this way, every story has a moral, not just the explicitly didactic ones. Stories are simplified models of human behavior in social contexts.
They are effective devices for transmitting culture because the nature of a story is to hold attention. Stories that survive over centuries are better memes than stories that don’t, endlessly replicating through people and culture.
The memory palace is a well-known mnemonic trick where you store things you want to remember in rooms of an ever growing house. Lesser known is the memory story, where you can remember long chains of information if you connect them through character, cause and consequence.
This is because, as Kahneman has pointed out, our memories are stories we tell ourselves with us as the hero or victim.
We don’t remember most moments of our lives; we remember the stories we craft from them, as we decide what we have learned from experiences or what we want to believe about ourselves.
Politics are stories about society.
“Every election is a competition between two stories about America”, as former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote.
Stories require conflict, a battle between good and evil, a protagonist and an antagonist, challenges to be overcome, complexity and contradictions resolved through symbolic dialectic.
Conflict is what creates the story: “fiction is characters in conflict.”
As Naomi Klein said, “We need to have counter-narratives to be ready when the next shock hits” because only better stories can challenge stories.
CHANGES AND ENDINGS
Kahneman’s research suggests that what defines stories are significant events and endings — the ‘peak end rule’.
Kurt Vonnegut’s (rejected) master’s thesis makes the same point in diagrammatic form. He showed how to graph stories using the axes of positive and negative events over time. You can tell what kind of story it is by the shape.
Until the story is finished, we don’t know what kind of story it is. Shakespearean tragedies end in death whereas comedies end in marriage.
The challenge for stories about how to live in the world is that they require an ending, one for each person individually and one for the world.
The story has to have conflict and conflicts have winners and losers, even if the victories are pyrrhic.
Stories about real events, must be in some sense fiction, picking some elements to highlight and suppressing others. The beam of attention pulls some things into sharp relief, rendering others invisible. How the events of the world are reported is by journalists writing stories.
This allows for different interpretations of history and current affairs, based on the known, verifiable facts. The problems arise when stories overwhelm the verifiable and we become unmoored from reality. This turns the news, or politics, back into fables and myths. And you can believe whatever myth you want to.
No one can prove a myth wrong because they are inherently unfalsifiable. This is the danger of allowing superstition to be taught in schools. It erodes the very basis of knowledge, of a shared reality, in favor of strongly held opinions that do no require observable data to support them.
Increasingly, the news is framed in terms of wins and losses between two sides, winners and losers in politics, in the economy, in love, in life. No one likes to be called a loser, but it builds strong group identity in success or shame.
America is exceptional, unique among modern nations, because of the kind of story it was founded on and the stories it continues to believe and propagate.
Most countries are based on stories of a people — a volk and their myths. Most country names simply mean “land of the X people”.
Countries, like people, tell themselves stories in order to live. They look to the past, its travails as well as its triumphs, and from that raw material they craft stories. These stories offer lessons and goals. They provide legitimacy to leaders and cohesion to communities. They generate meaning and direction for the present.
Countries as we understand them did not exist until the late 18th century:
If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in.
As countries embrace modernity and the obvious benefits of science and medicine &c on the quality of life for all, every modern country in the world let superstitions fade into the background and embraced some kind of empiricism as their dominant way of understanding the world.
Apart from America.
America began differently, not by a people, but by two types of believers, people for whom belief was the driving force of their lives.
First, the ‘pilgrims’, who were the most extreme religious extremists in an age of religious extremists. They fled Europe because the powers that be were trying to contain their more extreme beliefs.
The second type were a different kind of believer, those that chased fortune and fame. They came in wave after wave, for decades and centuries, looking for gold that was mostly not there, because they were willing to give up their entire lives, everything and everyone they knew, on the promise of material success.
The first group, freed from the constraints of socially enforced and politically maintained religious conformity, almost immediately began to splinter into new and every more extreme forms. America is unique in how many religions it has birthed in its short existence, most nominally Christian, but as varied as Quakers and Shakers, evangelicals and charismatics who speak in tongues, faith healers and snake handlers.
Mormonism, one of the youngest and the fastest growing religions, espouses the belief that the prophet Joe Smith was shown golden tablets by the angel Moroni and then transcribed a new book of the Bible to him — The Book of Mormon. It tells the story that Jesus visited America.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is the fourth largest church in the United States, and the largest church originating in the U.S
Over time the more sedate forms of Christianity have moved towards the more theatrical forms where people experience the physical sensations of divinity, in order to compete for attention, followers and funds. Religion in America is uniquely susceptible to selection pressure, which drives evolution.
New variants, like the Prosperity Gospel, which believes that wealth is a blessing of God and the result of prayer and devotion, are a double helix of the two strands of the American founding DNA.
They are stories about magical thinking, which is ultimately about the imposition of will and desire on an indifferent, stochastic reality.
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful — but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump.
In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled. From Fantasyland by Kurt Anderson
IN THE BEGINNING
In the beginning was the word, and it was used to tell stories. Humans are meaning seeking creatures, crying out for a common sense universe our minds can embrace. The great power of empiricism, the reason it led to such advances in human understanding and quality of life, is that it relegates belief to that which can be observed and replicated and, explicitly, holds all beliefs lightly.
When new evidence emerges, scientific consensus also changes, eventually.
Without evidence to ground them, stories can overwhelms us.
The stories we most want to believe become our reality, which we will then fight and kill over.
Stories require conflict, good and evil.
No one ever thinks they are on the side of evil.
You need a really powerful story to convince people to kill and to die. The story must dehumanize the opposition, render them other, less than human, evil or base, because otherwise most people find it very hard to kill other people in cold mud.
People often think of medieval times — The Dark Ages — as representative of these conflicts of magical thinking, of unfalsifiable opinion. The crusades were horrendous conflicts in which superstition was used to justify imperialism and galvanize the poor to die for their leaders’ material gain.
In truth, all wars are in some sense the same, conflicts of stories used to justify ambitions of conquest or the thwarting of those ambitions.
The United States of America Has Been At War 93% of the Time — 222 Out of 239 Years — Since 1776.
There were nine wars and almost 130 violent conflicts across the world in 2008, according to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, a think-tank. Their research suggests that
“ideological change is both the most common cause of conflict and the root of most wars, but there is rarely only one cause of dispute”
because the ideological rift -the fight between stories - is used to justify racial animus, tribal rivalry and violence, and economic or territorial acquisition.
We love stories.
Stories compete for attention and dominance in culture. They give meaning to action and to our lives. They are highly simplified models of cause and effect, of culture, that create naive binaries, lines in the world, between in-group and out-group. They require conflict and sides. Good and evil.
They are half of humanity, and glorious, when balanced with the sober rationality that let’s science flourish.
But when stories subsume observation, when science is ignored, and the narrative feed the needs of the greedy, stories alone will lead us to war, which, famously, is hell.
Faris, December 2017
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Strands of Genius
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