Narrative (Fallacy) in Everyday Life

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Black Swan

Narrative Fallacy as a concept relates to our innate tendency as humans to construct a story to fit the facts we’re confronted with. It’s how we concoct a backstory for a situation, without knowing the actual backstory. We do this all the time, watching the news we want to know why that guy did what he did. We want to know how that middle-aged dude ended up working as a barista at our local coffee spot. Or why our coworker is particularly grumpy today.

We want to know the WHY.

Did that barista get laid off recently from a high paying executive job and now he’s just looking for health care coverage? Or has he been a barista for 20 years? Did your co-worker’s wife leave him last night? Or did he just miss his morning jog/coffee/have a bad commute? What would our day look like if we didn’t construct all these backstories? If we just took what we saw in the present as all there was?

Might we see people for who they are now, in this moment, and might that be all we really need to know?

Being in the moment. Might this simple idea be a solution to lessen the hold Narrative Fallacy has on our daily lives? It’s an idea that comes up often as I delve further into the world of Coaching. It’s also a way of being that has interested me for years. It’s why and how I started meditating. It’s how I got through years of uncertain work situations. It’s how I’m dealing with once again being jobless – thinking in the present helps me construct enough story for interviews that the questioner doesn’t fall back on Narrative (Fallacy) to fill in the blanks. It’s also how I keep from dwelling on the past.

I can’t change what happened that led me to where I am. What I can do is address my present moment.

Will knowing the ‘why’ of that middle-aged barista change how you interact with him? Probably not, and if so that should tell you something about yourself rather than about him. And as for your co-worker, treat them with kindness and respect and you may alter the course of their day – whatever the cause or backstory.

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