The narrative fallacy and how to make it work for you

We all want to be the best versions of ourselves, but we are human and beautifully flawed. There are some things we’re great at, and some things that hold us back. An example is cognitive biases, where our brain chemistry distorts our understanding. I’m going to share with you my journey with one of these cognitive biases - the narrative fallacy - and two simple ways I’ve found to make it work for me. I hope this helps you on your journey. 

May 20, 2021

The problem at the heart of the narrative fallacy is our love for stories, and our skill for creating them.

On one level, our brains are like computers: they receive information from our senses, process it, and then act on the output. But unlike computers, our brains can get overwhelmed by the huge amount of diverse information they receive. In response, they create something easier to manipulate and store – narratives.

Knowledge of this can be exploited in positive ways, for example in techniques such as the “memory palace” which can be used to remember lists of items. It works by imagining a specific route around a familiar physical space, such as the rooms of a house, and mentally placing things to be remembered each of the rooms. It’s creating a narrative with the things you need to remember, which you can replay when you need to. Memory grandmasters can memorise the ordering of 10 decks of cards using techniques like this.

Narratives, not facts

But our internal use of narratives can create problems too, by introducing distortions into our understanding. The narrative we remember isn’t factual, it’s layered with our judgements, explanations, etc. But when we remember, it’s easy to treat the narrative like fact.  This is known as the narrative fallacy. This effect can help us understand and deal with misunderstandings at work.

For example, my career has involved managing big customer accounts. The customer and I would often meet to discuss their evolving needs so we can align our interests for a successful relationship. But in my experience, each party sometimes came away from these meetings with a conflicting understanding of the discussion. The cynic in me initially thought this came from selfish interest, and that can be very frustrating. But now I have a different understanding. It’s probably not selfishness or dishonesty. It’s more likely just the result of cognitive biases such as the narrative fallacy.

Initially, I tried to counter this by eliminating the narrative fallacy from my own thinking. I tried to avoid judgement and easy explanations. That failed. Resisting the pull of narratives was exhausting. Instead, I focussed on two simple, practical things that revolutionised these professional encounters for me.

Correcting the narrative

The first thing I did was take notes differently. I wrote down the exact words people said in quotation marks alongside my usual notes. I recorded key phrases only – perhaps one or two per minute. This helped me cut out judgement and explanation by recording exactly what people said. I had a more durable record of the meeting than my narrative-memory, which gave me more time to think about what had happened, and the ability to directly look up what was said later.

The second thing I did was to start testing my understanding during the meetings. At appropriate moments, I would tell the customer my narrative and ask if I had understood. This not only helped catch the occasions where I needed to correct my narrative, but it demonstrated to customers that I was really listening to them.

But the tricky bit is how to use these notes. In a dispute, it can be highly effective to calmly tell someone exactly what they said three months ago. But unless you’re very tactful, this can backfire. Remember that the person you are talking to has their own cognitive biases. Be kind to them. If in doubt, I’ve found a good compromise in most situations is to test your understanding again: “Looking back at my notes, I wrote down that you said this, and my understanding from that was this. Did I misunderstand?” Together, you can agree on a narrative that’s accurate for everyone.

The results

These two techniques worked. I was consistently chosen to manage our largest and most complex accounts, but I also felt much better in myself, knowing that I was doing a good job and having confidence that my decisions were fair and reasonable.

If this idea resonates with you, I encourage you to start today. It will feel unnatural at first but force yourself to do it for a few weeks and it’ll become effortless. If you’re interested in finding out more, I recommend reading The Black Swan. I found it a hard read, but inspirational.

Steve Raffe, VP Global Alliances at StarLeaf