Home » Be Suspicious of Stories: Tyler Cowen at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Be Suspicious of Stories: Tyler Cowen at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Tyler Cowen – American economist

In normal times, a blog written by an economist might not get that much attention, but our next presenter’s blog, called Marginal Revolution, is quite popular, and he writes a column for the New York Times, called the Economic Scene, here to explain the world to us in terms of the Great Recession and beyond. It is Tyler Cowen.

I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I’d like to do is instead tell you why I’m suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often, the more nervous I get.

So the best stories are often the trickiest ones. The good and bad things about stories is that they are a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter is that it always leaves the same things in. You’re always left with the same few simple stories. There is the old saying that just about every story can be summed up as “a stranger came to town.”

There is a book by Christopher Booker, where he claims there are really just seven types of stories. There is monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. You don’t have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this: if you think in terms of stories, you’re telling yourself the same things over and over again.

There was a study done, we asked some people– people were asked to describe their lives. When asked to describe their lives, what is interesting is how few people said “mess”. It’s probably the best answer, I don’t mean that in a bad way. “Mess” can be liberating, “mess” can be empowering, “mess” can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wanted to say was, “My life is a journey.” 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, “My life is a battle.” Again, that is a kind of story. 8% said, “My life is a novel.” 5% said, “My life is a play.” I don’t think anyone said, “My life is a reality TV show.”

But again, we’re imposing order on the mess we observe, and it’s taking the same patterns, and the thing is when something is in the form of a story, often, we remember it when we shouldn’t.

So how many of you know the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? It’s not obvious that is exactly what happened. The story of Paul Revere, it’s not obvious that that is exactly the way it happened. So again, we should be suspicious of stories. We’re biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they are like a candy that we’re fed when we consume political information, when we read novels.

When we read non-fiction books, we’re really being fed stories. Non-fiction is, in a sense, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but again, everything’s taking the same form of these stories. So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like this instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative.

First, narratives tend to be too simple, for the point of a narrative is to strip it away, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you can present in a sentence or two. When you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good versus evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. I know some things actually are good versus evil, we all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good versus evil story.

As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine that every time you’re telling a good versus evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good versus evil story, and by pressing that button, you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Another set of stories that are popular– if you know Oliver Stone’s movies, or Michael Moore’s movies, you can’t make a movie and say: “It was all a big accident.” No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because in a story, a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action, but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together.

So when you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you’re watching movies, this, again, is reason to be suspicious. As a good rule of thumb, if you’re asking: “When I hear a story, when should I be especially suspicious?” If you hear a story and you think: “Wow, that would make a great movie!” That’s when the “uh-oh” reaction should pop in a bit more, and you should start thinking in terms of how the whole thing is maybe a bit of a mess.

Another common story or storyline is the claim that we “have to get tough”. You’ll hear this in so many contexts. We have to get tough with the banks. We had to get tough with the labor unions. We need to get tough with some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we’re negotiating with. Again, the point is not against getting tough. Sometimes we should get tough. That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But this is again a story we fall back upon all too readily, all too quickly.

When we don’t really know why something happened, we blame someone, and we say: “We need to get tough with them!” As if it had never occurred to your predecessor, this idea of getting tough. I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness. It’s a simple story you tell: “We need to get tough, we needed to get tough, we will have to get tough.” Usually, that is a kind of warning signal.

Another kind of problem with stories is you can only fit so many stories into your mind at once, or in the course of a day, or even over the course of a lifetime. So your stories are serving too many purposes. For instance, just to get out of bed in the morning, you tell yourself the story that your job is really important, what you’re doing is really important and maybe it is, but I tell myself that story even when it’s not. And you know what? That story works. It gets me out of bed. It’s a kind of self-deception, but the problem comes when I need to change that story.

The whole point of the story is that I grab onto it and I hold it, and it gets me out of bed. So when I’m really doing something that is actually just a waste of time, in my mess of a life, I’m too tied into my story that got me out of bed, and ideally, I ought to have some very complex story map in my mind, you know, with combinatorials and a matrix of computation, and the like, but that is not how stories work. Stories in order to work have to be simple, easily grasped, easily told to others, easily remembered.

So stories will serve dual and conflicting purposes, and very often they will lead us astray. I used to think I was within the camp of economists, I was one of the good guys, and I was allied with other good guys, and we were fighting the ideas of the bad guys. I used to think that! And probably, I was wrong. Maybe sometimes, I’m one of the good guys, but on some issues, I finally realized: “Hey, I wasn’t one of the good guys.” I’m not sure I was the bad guy in the sense of having evil intent, but it was very hard for me to get away with that story.

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