One idea I encountered when investigating Jordan Peterson was the idea of narrative truth.

This is the kind of concept that most people nod along too, but which is almost always left implicit, so I thought it'd be worthwhile doing so here.

Let's quote what some other people have written on this subject:

Literal and Narrative Truth - Dave King

His story raises an interesting question, though – what does it mean for a memoir to be accurate? One of the largest issues we dealt with was the matter of dialogue.  He wanted to be absolutely scrupulous, telling stories precisely as they happened.  But in his original draft, his characters only spoke when he could remember what they said word-for-word.  Since the manuscript was written years after the fact, this meant he used very little dialogue – mostly bursts of highly memorable lines like, “I must live, I must tell!”  Nearly all the rest of his conversations were narrative summary, and many of his scenes felt flat and distant as a result.  He was telling the story to readers rather than letting them experience it.

I agreed with his absolute scruple about accuracy, but argued that he needed to focus on a different kind of accuracy – narrative accuracy rather than literal accuracy.  He needed to create dialogue that would make his readers feel the way he felt at the time.  This meant literally putting words in his characters’ mouths, even if those words conveyed the gist of a dialogue that actually happened.  But since the point of his narrative was to allow his readers to experience what he had experienced, the scenes with recreated dialogue were more accurate than the flat, emotionless scenes.

Many memoirists have taken this technique a step further and created composite characters.  For instance, in Dreams of my Father, President Obama’s “New York girlfriend” was actually an amalgam of several girlfriends he’d had in New York and Chicago. I’d argue that combining several minor characters into a single character who represents the type is another form of narrative accuracy.  If you had, for instance, several high school teachers who inspired you in similar ways, you could take the time to create each of them as a minor character.  But all these excess characters would do more than simply slow your narrative down.  By spending time on each teacher, you would give your readers the impression that your high school experiences meant more to you than they actually did.  The writing is strictly accurate, but the story as a whole is thrown off.

Storytelling and Narrative Truth

Society would remember the Holocaust differently if there were no survivors to tell the story, but only data, records and photographs. The stories of victims and survivors weave together the numbers to create a truth that is tangible to the human experience… The combination of the personal and narrative truth gives human context to the grainy black and white photos. As a result, the narrative truths combine with factual truth create a holistic picture of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust. This need for the narration of human experience seems innate...

Truth in Storytelling

It’s easier to understand important points when there’s a structure to follow. And it’s easier for us to remember—particularly if it is a lively and engaging piece.

If we over-simplify a story to fit it into a narrative arc, are we being truthful?

This gets us into an area where people start to see different shades of gray.

I think it helps to ask a few questions:

  • Am I leaving out key details because including them messes with the narrative flow?
  • Do I skip context because it makes the piece less compelling?
  • Am I framing anything in a way that makes the story look black and white when the reality is far more complex and nuanced?
  • Do I exclude facts and circumstances because they clutter the piece and may bore readers?

Why do we want to know the truth? Sometimes it's out of curiosity, sometimes for it's own sake, but arguably the strongest reason is because it allows us to act effectively in the world.

However, acting effectively in the world isn't just about knowing true facts about it. The human brain is fundamentally a meaning-making machine. When we are exposed to new facts, these update our current narratives and frames and it is usually via this indirect route that facts change our we live in the world.

Narratives build upon untrue facts can lead us down the wrong path, but the responsible use of artistic license often allows us model the world accurately more than the plain, unvarnished truth. Too much unnecessary detail confuses people, wears out their patience or interferes with the emotional impact. Simply throwing facts at someone is unlikely to be effective. Instead, you are much more likely to influence people if your communication style is comprehensible and engaging. And sometimes that requires some minor sacrifices in terms of literal accuracy.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:06 PM

"Narrative truth" is like "vegetarian meat". Just as vegetarian meat is not meat, but a substitute for meat, narrative truth is not truth, but a substitute for truth. Vegetarian meat tastes meaty, and narrative truth tastes truthy. Neither need contain any of the thing they are imitating.

Look at the way things like the supposed Dunning-Kruger effect spread like wildfire. That wasn't because of the data the finders presented, but because of the story it made. People really liked that story. But it seems there is little to support the story.

See also the replication crisis, the phrase "story time!" on Andrew Gelman's blog, etc. (ETA: And almost every TED or TedX talk ever.) The more coherent and truthy-tasting the story, the more suspicion it should be viewed with.

"Not being persuaded by the narrative" is an epistemic virtue.

The random selector of old posts has appositely shown me this one from the Sequences: “Rationality and the English Language”.

Yeah, I'll highlight some relevant quotes that support my position:

"Nonfiction conveys knowledge, fiction conveys experience. Medical science can extrapolate what would happen to a human unprotected in a vacuum. Fiction can make you live through it.

... My point is not to say that journal articles should be written like novels, but that a rationalist should become consciously aware of the experiences which words create.  A rationalist must understand the mind and how to operate it. That includes the stream of consciousness, the part of yourself that unfolds in language. A rationalist must become consciously aware of the actual, experiential impact of phrases, beyond their mere propositional semantics"

Narrative truth seems to be about shortcuts for conveying emotions and other internal states of the author or of others that the author is trying to serve as a conduit for.

We find it easier to engage with a text or piece of media when we are presented with a narrative, instead of just having the raw data thrown at us such that we have to figure out the meaning ourselves.

Speaking for me personally:  I'm usually super frustrated with anything that is framed as a narrative rather than giving me a table of data or something. In an alternative universe structured just for me and my peccadilloes, narrative truth like I think you're talking about exists and is useful...and is used 90% less.

I think this is probably because I hardly ever care very much about the emotions or internal states of any subject of the non-fiction media. Maybe the problem is that most writers are bad at writing for the audience of me? Maybe 90% of them are going way overboard into the narrative side? Much of what a writer does is often the narrative.  I bet very few writers start out saying "I want to be a researcher and collator of data".  Formatting tables isn't sexy!

Really wish I could come up with some examples right now but nothing is coming to mind. Imagine an ostensibly good article with info about the Delta variant. It has anecdotes about people in the hospital and quotes from doctors and statisticians.  It's got paragraph after paragraph of the authors own narrative. I hate these goddamn things and yet everything is full of it.

I wish 90% of the non-fiction media I read were 90% shorter by leaving out narrative.  And I don't just mean random posts on the internet, I'm talking about ostensibly Good Stuff You Should Read.  Think big features in The Atlantic or something like that.

There's non-fiction stuff whose whole point is a narrative...think memoirs. Those do not bother me in the least, though I find myself usually not very interested in reading this type of stuff.

None of this is to say that I think it's the wrong way to influence and be persuasive in the world as a whole. 

That sounds like the experience of being unpersuaded by the narrative.

The experience of being persuaded (in the ideal case) is more like seeing a completely new way of seeing things that you'd previously missed. Maybe you'd already knew all the facts, but you never put them together.

For example, let's suppose you're an accountant and was committed fraud to steal from the firm. Maybe you'd previously noticed them being evasive on particular topics or that some of the expenses seemed slightly more than what you'd expect, but not enough that you'd given it more than a second's thought.  All of a sudden it all clicks and you realise what the signs are pointing to.  Maybe you hadn't even considered it as a possibility. I mean, sure you knew in the abstract that accounting fraud happened, but your colleagues seemed like nice people and trustworthy.  You only ever saw it as a possibility in the abstract and never as something that could actually happen in the firm you work for.

There are plenty of people (including scholars, but not generally STEM scholars) who'll argue that fiction can contain truth.  I suspect this comes down to a motte-and-bailey distinction of "truth" and evidence that one can update upon, with "model", a framework for compressing information and making predictions.

I personally think that both sides are correct - there is value in changing/reinforcing models based on well-stated and believable narratives.  And it's not truth - one should not update specific propositional beliefs on it.

IMO, the worst of both is fiction that's not labeled as such.  A memoir that claims to be true but fudges actual facts will tempt one into making incorrect updates, and when discovered, casts doubt on the value of the narrative and modeling input.

This seems to be based in the idea of manipulating the reader.

'Manipulating' is perhaps too harsh a word. In some contexts (fiction most obviously), the reader is essentially signing up to be manipulated. But in general, if you find yourself saying 'my readers will be insufficiently moved by the truth, so I must create a falsehood that will cause them to feel what I want them to feel, and think what I want them to think', it seems pretty accurate to describe that as manipulative.

If you were offended by something I said, and punched me in the face, the correct answer to 'Did you punch him in the face?' is 'Yes.' If you say 'Well, saying yes might lead people to conclude that I am a violent and dangerous person, and I do not think that I am a violent and dangerous person, so it would be more narratively accurate to answer No,' then you're just lying.

This is obviously an extreme example, but it doesn't seem qualitatively different.

(I'm also reminded of a quote by Bertrand Russell: "The mark of a civilized man is the ability to read a column of numbers and weep".)

"If you were offended by something I said, and punched me in the face, the correct answer to 'Did you punch him in the face?' is 'Yes.' If you say 'Well, saying yes might lead people to conclude that I am a violent and dangerous person, and I do not think that I am a violent and dangerous person, so it would be more narratively accurate to answer No,' then you're just lying"

I hope this doesn't offend you, but it seems like you might have missed the point? This wasn't the kind of example I was defending.

And in any case, persuasion is only one aspect of its effectiveness.  Another is memorability - we can imagine that crafting a story in a particular way might make it more memorable without significantly changing its persuasiveness (although to be fair, increasing memorability will likely increase persuasiveness as well).

Another aspect is conveying the subjective experience of encountering a particular situation. This is useful because these subjective experiences allow us to better relate to other people and form an intuition about how they are likely to act in the world.