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

So if you think which set of stories you end up hearing, you end up hearing the glamor stories, the seductive stories, and again I’m telling you, don’t trust them. There are people using your love of stories to manipulate you. Pull back and say: “What are the messages, what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?” Start telling yourself those, and then see if any of your decisions change. That is one simple way. You can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent to which you think in stories, and make some better decisions.

So if I’m thinking about this talk, I’m wondering, of course, what is it you take away from this talk? What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen? One story you might be like the story of the quest. “Tyler was a man on a quest. Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories.” That would be a story you could tell about this talk. It would fit a pretty well-known pattern. You might remember it. You could tell it to other people. “This weird guy came, and he said, ‘Don’t think in terms of stories. Let me tell you what happened today!'”

And you tell your story. Another possibility is you might tell a story of rebirth. You might say, “I used to think too much in terms of stories but then I heard Tyler Cowen and now I think less in terms of stories!” That too is a narrative you will remember, you can tell to other people, and again, it may stick. You also could tell a story of deep tragedy. “This guy Tyler Cowen came and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories about how other people think too much in terms of stories.”

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So, today, which is it? Is it like quest, rebirth, tragedy? Or maybe some combination of the three? I’m really not sure, and I’m not here to tell you to burn your DVD player and throw out your Tolstoy. To think in terms of stories is fundamentally human. There is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez memoir “Living to Tell the Tale” that we use memory in stories to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away.

But again, as an economist, I’m thinking about life on the margin, the extra decision. Should we think more in terms of stories, or less in terms of stories? When we hear stories, should we be more suspicious? And what kind of stories should we be suspicious of? Again, I’m telling you it’s the stories, very often, that you like the most, that you find the most rewarding, the most inspiring. The stories that don’t focus on opportunity cost, or the complex, unintended consequences of human action, because that very often does not make for a good story. So often a story is a story of triumph, a story of struggle; there are opposing forces, which are either evil or ignorant; there is a person on a quest, someone making a voyage, and a stranger coming to town. And those are your categories, but don’t let them make you too happy.

As an alternative, at the margin – again, no burning of Tolstoy – but just be a little more messy. If I actually had to live those journeys, and quests, and battles, that would be so oppressive to me! It’s like, my goodness, can’t I just have my life in its messy, ordinary – I hesitate to use the word – glory but that it’s fun for me? Do I really have to follow some kind of narrative? Can’t I just live? So be more comfortable with messy. Be more comfortable with agnostic, and I mean this about the things that make you feel good. It’s so easy to pick out a few areas to be agnostic in, and then feel good about it, like, “I am agnostic about religion, or politics.” It’s a kind of portfolio move you make to be more dogmatic elsewhere, right?

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Sometimes, the most intellectually trustworthy people are the ones who pick one area, and they are totally dogmatic in that, so pig-headedly unreasonable, that you think, “How can they possibly believe that?” But it soaks up their stubbornness, and then, on other things, they can be pretty open-minded. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking because you’re agnostic on some things, that you’re being fundamentally reasonable about your self-deception, your stories, and your open-mindedness. Think about this idea of hovering, of epistemological hovering, and messiness, and incompleteness, and how not everything ties up into a neat bow, and you’re really not on a journey here. You’re here for some messy reason or reasons, and maybe you don’t know what it is, and maybe I don’t know what it is, but anyway, I’m happy to be invited, and thank you all for listening.

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