The news is a business, just like the USPS Uber, Walmart, and Starbucks.
Everyone’s got to make a profit off of what they sell.
And the news sells…news; specifically headlines, facts, and answers. And to sell their product, they can’t just straight up give it to you.
No, they’ve got to wrap it up in something tempting and seductive.
It’s breaking, it’s never-before-seen, it’s a crisis, it’s a story.
Stories. That’s what they sell. They sell a story of what happened, why you should know, how it affects you, and how it can be fixed.
This is what’s called a narrative. The news creates it to spice up the “facts” their giving you.
See, narratives are a part of the human psyche. We all view life as a narrative; we’re born, raised, become “of age,” date, marry, have kids, retire, and ultimately die. We view our lives as a story, so it makes sense that the news would position it like that.
The problem is, it easily becomes a fallacy.
This narrative we build around our lives can quickly be used to blind ourselves. It can narrow our outlook, limit the possible options and causes that we see, and pervert reality.
This narrative fallacy is story time for adults; simple, acceptable, but utterly lacking of any complexity or depth.
What’s the Narrative Fallacy?
Humans are wired to view the world in terms of a narrative. It’s just how it goes.
This reliance on narrative goes south when we let it blind us to reality. Once you deny the truth and complexity of an issue for a simplified explanation, you’ve fallen into a fallacy.
The narrative fallacy looks for connections between events that fit into your outlook, cognitively blinding you, and distorting the reality of the situation.
It can range from applying how Reagan dealt with the USSR, to modern day Russia, to a correlation implies causation fallacy.
The Power of Narratives
Since we rely so much on narratives to make sense of the world, the power they have over us is impressive.
There’s three different facets of why narratives have so much sway over us.
- Narratives make information easier to understand and remember: stories activate your emotions helping you remember key pieces of information. Once it all comes together into a story, you can process it easier.
- Narratives make sense of the random/complex/confusing: narratives are the best method for incorporating numerous facts and situations into one easily understandable lesson. Why did “X” happen? Because of “Y” and “Z” interacting. Narratives convince us we’ve figured it out, while answering pressing questions.
- Narratives bolster our sense identity: a story can be the unifying factor in a movement. It can unify a nation. It can cause wars and strife. Political parties and movements are examples of how narratives create identity. “The party of Lincoln,” “Reagan Conservatism,” and even the Founding Fathers are party identities wrapped up in narratives.
The 4 Main Narrative Fallacies
The narrative fallacy can impose itself on you through four fallacy subsets.
- The Rise & Fall: “something used to be better, but now it’s in decline.” This is a typical historical outlook that plagues society to no end. It plays a part in culture wars and backwardness. It’s the idea that everything was better back in the day, by selectively picking and choosing what you remember.
- Continual Progress: “things just keep getting better and better.” This suffers from the same picking and choosing mindset that the first one does. I’m sure the Romans thought everything was getting better, then the Dark Ages came around. You can’t just blindly assume it’ll always get better and better.
- The One Best Way: “there’s only one way to go about doing or fixing something.” This is a common explanation of the narrow minded ideological dogmatist. My way or the highway. Maybe a better description is “the best way I know of now.” Something will always come along that’s better.
- The Too Simple Explanation: “this happened and here’s why.” An easily digestible quantity of information in a small amount of time, aligned to a particular platform’s belief system. The news does this because it’s got to provide the facts, context, and the answer in one segment. As result, complexity is lost, and depth is traded for clicks.
Notice how each one simplifies past experiences and history into an easily digestible explanation.
Now, notice which fallacy subset applies to different political and social groups. Donald Trump is obviously a rise and fall narrative kind of guy. Many liberals subscribe to a continual progress narrative. All groups and many companies go with the one best way narrative. And the news utilizes the too simple explanation.
Avoiding The Narrative Trap
As I’ve said in a past article…
“I don’t think it’s possible to tell a story that doesn’t invoke an emotional response of some kind.”
And that’s what it ultimately comes down to: emotions.
Emotions are incredibly powerful, and we all fall prey to them. We let the narrative of our party turn a blind eye to bad habits in the party. We let narratives paint a rosy picture of this nation, persuading us that we can do no wrong. We let narratives convince us that a simplified fix from 50 years ago will fix a misunderstood issue of severe complexity today.
The biggest issue I have with narratives is not that they paint a picture of the issue, but that they usually paint a warped one.
So, how do you combat this fallacy in your own thinking?
Well, avoid relying on stories as proof. Return to first principles (a self-evident assumption that can’t be deduced from any other assumption). Push the window of what’s acceptable, sensible, or possible when considering events, causes, and effects. Don’t rely on the party line, or the common answer you always give. Read an explanation from someone you don’t agree with or wouldn’t consider.
The biggest thing that helped me was reading different ideas and thoughts, and researching the different fallacies and cognitive distortions that we all fall prey to.
Do that and you’ll start to pick out the narrative fallacy faster and faster.