Countless fiction authors have made good on this idea for centuries. Taking a page from their playbook, social scientists started doing the same thing in pop-psychology books that quickly turned into best-sellers.
Which begets the question. If a story is such a fertile medium to share science in, shouldn’t the books mention they are contributing to the same irrationality they are trying to warn you against?
Samuel McNermey wrote the best critique of this issue for Scientific American back in 2012:
This is one of the reasons we humans love narratives; they summarize the important information in a form that’s familiar and easy to digest. It’s much easier to understand events in the world as instances of good versus evil, or any one of the seven story types. As Daniel Kahneman explains, “[we] build the best possible story form the information available… and if it is a good story, [we] believe it.” The implication here is that it’s how good the story is, not necessarily its accuracy, that’s important.
But narratives are also irrational because they sacrifice the whole story for one side of a story that conforms to one’s worldview. Relying on them often leads to inaccuracies and stereotypes. This is what the participants in Brenner’s study highlight; people who take in narratives are often blinded to the whole story – rarely do we ask: “What more would I need to know before I can have a more informed and complete opinion?”
And that’s the core of pop-psychology books — even the New York Times bestsellers. They are weaving a wonderful story to share with you all of the science and data that can make their point.
But the story itself is meant to appeal to your emotional, irrational side. And as social scientists, all of the authors are aware that their story will work its magic on you (even if the data don’t fully support their conclusions). Research “shows us that people are not only willing to jump to conclusions after hearing only one side’s story, but that even when they have additional information at their disposal that would suggest a different conclusion, they are still surprisingly likely to do so.”
Tyler Cowen made a similar point in a TED lecture a few months ago. He explained it this way:
There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.
The crux of the problem, as Cowen points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand irrationalities without taking advantage of them. And, paradoxically, we rely on stories to understand why they can be harmful.
That’s why reading those pop-psychology books is so compelling. They tell a good story. And good stories are what allow our minds to take in new information quickly and confirm our own biases.
Every scientist who writes those books knows this, and uses the power of the story without acknowledging their appealing to the reader’s irrationality. Because if all they presented was their data and studies, readers’ eyes would glaze over and it would never become a bestseller.
But readers of popular psychology books on rationality must recognize that there’s a lot they don’t know, and they must be beware of how seductive stories are. The popular literature on cognitive biases is enlightening, but let’s be irrational about irrationality; exposure to X is not knowledge and control of X. Reading about cognitive biases, after all, does not free anybody from their nasty epistemological pitfalls.
Agreed. So the next time you pick up a Malcolm Gladwell or some other pop-psychology book, keep that in mind. The stories are there to sway your opinion in the author’s direction — and the author knows they will work to accomplish their job on most of their readers.
Read the full article: The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology