Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Human "Weakness" for A Good Story

Humans love stories. We seem to be wired to learn by stories. For the most part, stories are wonderful, both as recreation, and as a means of learning. BUT.

Sometimes that love of stories amounts to a cognitive flaw. We believe untruth because it makes such a good story. Journalists distort the truth, sometimes perhaps without fully realizing it, in order to produce a story with a satisfying "arc". Politicians constantly over-simplify complex issues in order to boil them down to a good story.

This article truth-squadding the oft-repeated claim that Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school basketball team is a good example. I've heard that story for years, and more-or-less accepted it without thinking about whether it is true or not. Based on the convincing evidence in the article, it's just not true. But it makes such a good story!

It also illuminates "emotional truth" versus Factual Truth. I use that first term very cautiously, because I come down on the side of capital-T, empirical and factual Truth. Still, emotions are also a vital dimension of being human, so it is important to understand their role. In the case of being cut from his squad, to MJ, it probably did feel like he had been cut. Per the article, he used that to his everlasting motivational advantage. That strikes me as perfectly reasonable, and functional. But it still doesn't make it factually true that he was cut.

So what is my point? What difference does it make if a few hundred million people  believe a story about Michael Jordan's high-school career that, while not a wild fabrication, is not fully accurate? About that specific example--I don't know. Maybe it doesn't make any difference at all.

But as the saying goes, practice makes permanent. By training ourselves to question stories that seem too good to be true, and insisting always on verification, we build up our mental muscle so that we have resistance to allowing ourselves to be misled by the power of "a true story", in cases where it does matter.

In the end, no good comes from untruth

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