Our Brain: The Great Story Teller

After some time off my keyboard and my books due to the birth of our startup PricePinz, I have decided to take some time off on this beautiful Singaporean Sunday to finish some left over book reviews. For those of you who liked Part 1 of my review of Thinking, fast and slow or those who were intrigued by the TED talk I have posted, this is for you.


You think you understand it all

Kahneman quotes Taleb in one of the portions of the book I like most, the one that explains the concept of Narrative Fallacy. Narrative fallacies are in short stories which our brain constructs to simplify reality, classify it, and archive it in little boxes in our subconscious. Our brain does not deal well with stories that it cannot extract a logical conclusion from, and therefore, if this logical conclusion is lacking, it invents it.

Try to think of success or failure stories that you know of. For how many of these do you attribute the outcome as being the result of the protagonists’ courage, stupidity, intelligence or vision? Take the Google story for example. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are now national heroes, but what would have happened to them had they sold their search engine to Yahoo for a bit less than $1M as were their intentions at some point?

How many conversations around you start with “Google succeeded because…”? Did any of them start with “Google was lucky not to fall into oblivion because…”? Actually, the problem lies in the presence of the “Because” in the sentence. Our brain does not deal well with stories of success and failure that it cannot append a causality to. Therefore what it does is it constructs a story and goes on trying to apply the morality of that story to future decisions it needs to make. It was Eric Schmidt that brought Google to what it is right now, and therefore every startup should appoint a visionary CEO to replace the founding engineers as soon as it starts growing beyond what the engineers could conceive, shouldn’t it?

The ultimate test to an explanation is whether knowing it a priori would have made the outcome of the story predictable. Since many other non-events constrain the outcome of a story, none of our explanations are useful and it actually takes more courage to say that “Google succeeded because of a chain of events that are not replicable in any other set of conditions and that therefore the Google success story like most other stories teaches us… Nothing.”

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