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

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.

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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.

One interesting thing about cognitive biases is they are the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, 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 that we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. 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. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like: “I bought this book. I won’t be ‘Predictably Irrational’.” It’s like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It’s why there is such a market for pessimism. But to think that by buying the book gets you somewhere, that’s maybe the bigger fallacy. It’s just like the evidence that shows that the most dangerous people are those who have been taught some financial literacy. They’re the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It’s the people who realize they don’t know anything at all, that end up doing pretty well.

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A third problem with stories is that outsiders manipulate us using stories, and we all like to think advertising only works on the other guy, but, of course, that’s not how it is, advertising works on all of us. So if you’re too attached to stories, what will happen is people selling products come along, and they will bundle their product with a story. You’re like, “Hey, a free story!” And you end up buying the product, because the product and the story go together.

If you think about how capitalism works, there is a bias here. Let’s consider two kinds of stories about cars. Story A is: “Buy this car, and you will have beautiful, romantic partners and a fascinating life.” There are a lot of people who have a financial incentive to promote that story. But, say, the alternative story is: “You don’t actually need a car as nice as your income would indicate. What you usually do is look at what your peers do and copy them. That is a good heuristic for lots of problems, but when it comes to cars, just buy a Toyota.” Maybe Toyota has an incentive there, but even Toyota is making more money off the luxury cars, and less money off the cheaper cars.

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