Sunday, July 17, 2011

Our Little Stories: Telling More Than We Know

Autobiography at its finest (source)
Last week I wrote a blog post about one of the most famous psychological experiments EVER: The Milgram Obedience Experiment. That got me thinking, wouldn't it be neat to write posts about some of my favorite classic experiments. Which brings us all here.

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:

A study conducted by Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan (one of my favorites) and Timothy Wilson, was designed to test this very question. The researchers wondered if people would have access to the real reasons behind their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. They predicted, that though people would construct reasonable and plausible narratives for the decision they make, the same people would actually have very little insight into their own thoughts, wishes, goals, and feelings.

Is my jackhammer interrupting your movie experience? (source)
How did they conduct the study? Nisbett and Wilson had university students assigned to two classrooms where they would each watch the same movie. Half of the participants watched this movie in a quiet and comfortable room where their movie experience was uninterrupted by noise. The other half of participants watched this identical movie in a room that was identical to that of the other participants, with one critical difference: construction was going on outside the room and a jackhammer could be heard periodically throughout the viewing of the film.

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


  1. Great post. I'm always creating a cool narrative in my head that puts some order and reason to the direction of my life. I usually put my story it in the context of an unwritten novel (and of course in my head there is a good soundtrack of songs that correspond to significant "turning points" in my life). However, as your post and research example makes clear, that's all pretty much just to make me feel like it all makes sense.

    However, even if our "stories" about ourselves are merely ways we give ourselves the illusion of prediction and control, isn't there some power to be gained by viewing ourselves in ways that make sense and allow us to feel that our choices and actions result in predictable outcomes? I feel that if I just said, "well, I'm only here by chance and none of it really makes sense..." that sort of takes the point out of moving forward when it comes to having a goal-oriented outlook in life. Maybe some ways that we fool ourselves are for our own good.

  2. As a matter of fact, there has never been anything else -- broadly speaking -- that I've wanted to do, rather than what I'm doing now: academia in the sciences. It got more specific as I grew up, but at 5 it was "scientist," at 10 it was "something like astronomer or nuclear stuff," at 15 it was "hard sciences, definitely," and by the time I was in college I was double majoring in physics and math.

    The only real turning point was deciding to add the math major (thank William Dunham's _Journey Through Genius_ for that one), and then deciding that I kind of sucked at lab so I hit grad school in math. I even knew I liked number theory by that point, and that's what I'm doing now. Details of school choices and the vagaries of the job market aside, my life has been pretty much straight down the middle.

    However, I know that compared to most people I'm very lucky in always knowing I was fairly good at what I liked doing and anticipating being able to earn a living at it.

  3. Thanks for the comment Daniel, and I think you are right on. In general, whether or not the stories are actually true may not matter. What matters instead is the enhanced prediction and control we gain from these stories. There is a wealth of research (decades of it) suggesting that control beliefs promote feelings of personal autonomy and authenticity--both aspects of well-being.

    Thanks for your comment, Inflection. It does sound like your story is quite linear and explainable, and that your personal narrative also promotes your understanding of the world and its causal properties.

    Thanks for reading/posting!

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for the response. Your post came at a good time for me. It relates to Michael Shermer's "The Believing Brain" which I just started. As he points out:

    We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.

    I thought the excerpt above tied in nicely with your thoughts on this topic.

  5. A great excerpt and very relevant to today's post. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I'm currently moving through a related experience, which involves evaluating the reasons for my divorce. The heart of the matter: My perspective of how she acted over the last year is largely incompatible with the narrative she's created. (And the situation is reversible, I assume.) As a primary example, one of us has stressed the idea of "growing apart," while the other believes compatibility deterioration correlated to the period of her academic work in seminary and was primarily a response to her stress. What is disconcerting is how easily two different beliefs about the same moments can define such divergent choices -- time to move on versus working through hard times -- and how we believe both to be "true."

  7. I truly believe it's nearly impossible to understand our past motivation by glimpsing into the rearview mirror (my major area involved topics like metacognition, executive function, formal operational thought, et al.) we can't extract our present day needs, wants, and views from our re-creation of the past. We experience a conglomerate of both.

    I was working on an essay to explain what I've done since schooldays and have decided to just give up on it. I'm not Marcel Proust.

    We can't do a statistical analysis to determine relevant variables ( consider the ludicrous impossibility of that phrase!); we can never get at the "truth" so why not use self-enhancing explanations that might be effective in dealing with present day issues we have to tackle. Life is not easy. We need all the help we can muster.
    Denice Walter

  8. Anonymous: yes it is a little disconcerting, and i wish you the best of luck in facing a challenge like divorce. Stories like these--that enhance prediction and control-- I would imagine, are critical during stressful times like that.

    Denice: so true about the statistical analysis problem. the truth it seems, is a moving target that shifts based on our present thoughts, wishes, and goals.

    Thanks to you both for reading/posting!

  9. I completely agree that we often impose narratives on our own experiences and the events around us. I think Nassim Taleb dealt with this subject a bit in one of his books (Black Swan I'm going to guess). And I think what you speak of here is often why I have such a problem describing my work experience during job interviews; interviewers expect you to have a concrete and acceptable reason for moving from one position to another. In other words, a narrative. Real reasons, such as, "that's where my girlfriend lived at the time" or "I didn't like the place" aren't seen as acceptable answers. We've all had to make up reasons, other than the real ones, to describe our career paths. Who do we think we're fooling?

  10. Thanks for the comment James, and on the topic of Taleb's Black Swann, I think it was Taleb's realization that people were overconfident about the causes of market fluctuation that led to his success.

    Thanks again for reading!