|Autobiography at its finest (source)|
Let's try something for a second: Why don't you think back on the story of your life. While you are thinking back, try to remember why you got to the job you did, the city you now live in, the neighborhood, the relationships, etc... Most likely you--and most people for that matter-- took a long winding road to where you are now. It's also likely that you can pinpoint a few critical decisions you made in the past that have really shaped who you are today, and what you did to get here. We often construct these life narratives and you can buy any number of them in bookstores near you (hint: they are in the "autobiography" section).
But how true are these narratives really? Do we really know the two or three critical points in our lives that changed everything and made us the people we are today? Psychological science says no, and here is why:
|Is my jackhammer interrupting your movie experience? (source)|
Nisbett and Wilson then asked participants a series of questions about their movie experiences. Importantly, the researchers asked the group who was subjected to the jackhammer to speculate about just how much the jackhammer influenced their viewing of the film. What did they find?
Not surprisingly, participants subjected to the jackhammer felt that the noise had greatly disrupted their movie experience and they believed that they would have liked the movie a great deal more if the jackhammer had not been periodically interrupting the viewing. Surprisingly, though participants thought the jackhammer decreased their enjoyment of the film, it actually didn't: participants in the two groups liked the movie equally.
What does this research tell us about our narratives? Nisbett and Wilson concluded, based on this research, that we have strong motivations for prediction and control of our social environments. That is, we're thinking creatures who want to know how stuff works, and as such, we are constantly constructing theories that could plausibly explain what is happening in our environments. The reality though is that these theories are never really tested or confirmed, and so they are often fabrications--based on our own beliefs about how the world works rather than on how the world actually works (which may be more chaotic than we'd like to admit).
For me, I could paint you a neat and tidy picture of how I became a researcher. I suppose it started with dreams as a 4-year old to be an astronaut and explore the cosmos. My parents and their parents have always been teachers in one form or another. Combine the teaching and scientific interests and you have an academic researcher after between 20-30 years of training.
The actual story of me might be something more like this: I started out dreaming of playing professional basketball until I was 12 years old. I kicked around different career ideas, thought about writing the next great American novel, toyed with becoming a clinical psychologist, and then sort of ended up conducting research in college, simply because it was the next logical step of my education at Berkeley.
The point is that the first story makes sense because it is logical and applies some of my theories about how the world works. The other story is much more about chance and circumstance, and so it doesn't meet some of our pragmatic needs for prediction and control.
Does your life fit a narrative? Did I diminish your desire to read autobiographies? I'd love to read your comments!
Nisbett, R., & Wilson, T. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84 (3), 231-259 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231