Gratifying Narrative Syndrome

By Deane Barker tags: society

As human beings, we chronically suffer from what I call “Gratifying Narrative Syndrome,” or a desire to confirm narratives that we find emotionally or psychologically gratifying.

You see these all the time – stories and paradigms that click with us for some reason, and that we very much want to be true. To this end, we interpret evidence in support of them and discount evidence that contradicts them.

  • To lose weight, eat many smaller meals. (Nope)

  • Lowering taxes will actually increase tax revenue. (Uh uh)

  • You need to drink eight glasses of water a day. (A myth; also)

  • Organic food is better for you. (No evidence)

  • The United States gives large amounts of money away in foreign aid. (Maybe in absolute terms, but not relative to the budget)

This is clearly confirmation bias at work.

Confirmation bias, also called “myside bias”, is the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

Politics and health are two great sources for this, because they both involve hard truths that we just don’t want to admit are true. We’re emotionally seeking some exception to the rules that we don’t like, so we hold out hope there’s a hidden secret. When we see or hear something which confirms it, we seize it and hang on for dear life.

(Yes, we’re actually always looking for that “one weird trick” that the banner ads promise us. We love this, because we love the idea that a thorny problem can be unlocked by a secret key.)

Additionally, sometimes these narratives subconsciously confirm other paradigms that we hold dear. Thinking that the U.S. gives away a lot of money in foreign aid (in truth, it’s less than 1% of the budget) might secretly make us happy because we like to remain convinced of our relevance to world politics, or that other countries couldn’t function without us, or perhaps that our budget woes are because we’re benevolent to other countries through some form of the Christian work ethic. Story A confirms Story B. If A isn’t true, then neither is B, and we don’t want this.

Another factor: we just love contrived stories that neatly explain something in an interesting way.  The world is full of questions, so we take comfort in the idea that there are explanations for them all. Consider this explanation for the phrase “rule of thumb”:

The expression “rule of thumb” did not originate from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and there is no evidence that such a law ever existed.

This story does several things: (1) it neatly explains a phrase that never really made sense to us, (2) it stokes our sense of moral outrage, and (3) it’s interesting in a morbidly curious way.  We imagine telling this story at dinner parties and people nodding in agreement as we have just sagely confirmed a Gratifying Narrative for them.

That quote on the “Rule of Thumb” is from an entire Wikipedia page on common misconceptions. Go read that and see how many you’re heard and that you thought were true.  And then ask yourself why you thought they were true. If you trace back, it’s probably because someone else told you, it sounded reasonable and interesting or perhaps it helped confirm some other mental paradigm you were holding onto, so you labeled it as accurate and didn’t seek any confirmation lest the boat get rocked.

I’m suddenly wondering is Gratifying Narratives are viral. Do they seek out their own survival by being interesting enough to pass on? Do they need to be contagious to survive?  This is the classic definition of a meme, as coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

Is this why we seek to confirm Gratifying Narratives?  Do we secretly want to ensure their survival?

Clearly, that gets a little far-fetched. I think the truth lies somewhere nearer what Doris Graber described in Processing the News. In order to make sense of the world, we’re essentially assembling a large puzzle. Every new piece of information is a new piece in that puzzle. When we can fit that piece into a larger framework somewhere, it goes in with a gratifying “click.”

We love that click. We seek it out, and we avoid any inconvenient details that prevent it from happening.

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