Heuristic: How does it sound in a movie?

by Stabilizer1 min read28th Oct 201215 comments

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Narrative Fallacy
Personal Blog

Our internal dialogues are often exactly that: dialogues that suit a narrative. Narrative building (the basis of the narrative fallacy) is often quite detrimental to attempts to think clearly. It is therefore beneficial to detect and correct for biases introduced from narrative building. But it can be hard to distinguish a 'clear' thought from one that is a consequence of a narrative.

I offer a heuristic to make the distinction between a thought which is a direct attempt to model reality and a thought which is based solely on its suitability to a narrative:

 

  1. Isolate a sentence uttered in your internal (or external) voice. It could also be a pattern of images, voices or feelings. Tastes and smells are harder to do in this technique, but I believe we rarely 'think' with our tastes and smells.
  2. Imagine it in a movie or a story. Also see how easy it is for you come up with some music to suit this thought pattern. Also examine the suitability of the people in your thoughts as characters in a movie or TV show. 
  3. Evaluate its suitability to the above, narrative-like contexts. 
  4. If it seems very suitable, it is now much more likely that it is part of narrative building. Otherwise, it might be an 'accurate' thought. 

 

Two examples:

1. When buying something: Often times, when I'm standing in a Starbucks line for a coffee and try to imagine why I'm standing there (when I can make my own coffee both at my home and at my office), I am usually returned with a feeling of being part of The People Who Do Things. Or one of being a Hard Worker who needs his Coffee to do his Hard Work with Focus and Determination. It fits too well while introducing a character in a novel. After I started noticing this, I've been realizing that coffee is not as useful in improving my focus as I thought it was earlier.

2. In conversations: This must be very familiar to most people. Anecdotes get highly embellished based on their suitability to a story. Also the way they are usually 'narrated' rather than just 'conveyed'. Realizing this when it happens can be quite useful.

Other examples?

 

 

 

 

 

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15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:25 PM
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You're discounting the case where precisely because it fits the narrative, it is effective.

Getting coffee and building the narrative of "I'm a Hard Worker who will now do his Hard Work with Focus and Determination, look at me getting ready with coffee" is priming yourself for that hard work, the narrative is part of your motivational structure and embellishes your Focus and Determination.

Being too aware of "it's only plain old me, whether in a uniform, or in an office, or at Starbucks" is needlessly sabotaging an often effective placebo-like effect that relies on your internal narrative.

Epistemologically useful, possibly, but contraindicated as an instrumentally useful habit.

As with most (?all) biases, the key seems to be to notice the bounds of its usefulness.

Having a normal human amount of faith in narratives is useful for making conversation and probably for motivating oneself, but not for (?most) planning.

A stranger comes to town... Most planning is about motivating yourself to do the right thing.

Let's say I want to work on an big project. Then I check facebook. If I ask myself: "If this would be a movie, would the actor check facebook?" I get a pretty clear answer: "No." The actor would do something meaninful. The times in my life where I was the most productive were the time where I was clearly in touch with a narrative.

The more strongly you develop a narrative the more likely you are to get other people to want to participate. If you want to get big things done you need other people to help you.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

Yep. I've always liked the adage about trying to make one's own life an artwork (variously attributed IIRC to Oscar Wilde, Nietzsche, Pope John Paul II and possibly someone else too).

Indeed, it's good to be aware of the narrative-bias on some level, just not too aware. More like an exception handling routine that's just checking for out-of-bounds errors.

Welcome to LW, glad that my little comment sparked you to make your first comment. :)

More like an exception handling routine that's just checking for out-of-bounds errors.

Oh God. I love this place.

You're right. I was discounting that.

Timothy Wilson's Redirect is basically about editing your narratives to overcome psychological issues. I haven't read it yet, but seems very useful and relevant.

And this is why I love LessWrong, folks--sometimes. In other rationality communities--ones that conceived of rationality as something other than "accomplishing goals well"--this kind of post would be hurrah'd.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

(This LW post goes into more detail about that.)

I use something like this technique. There are certain phrases from my internal monologue that I've flagged as indicators that I'm being ridiculous. When I start using phrases appropriate to the dramatic climax of a movie ("I can't do this! I should never have tried!" or "He just doesn't care, does he?") I make myself check whether the degree of drama is suited to my actual situation (parallel parking, or trying to talk to someone who's engrossed in what he's reading). If the level of drama is way too high for the actual situation, I need to laugh at myself and give it a calmer try.

I also learned while working in a domestic violence shelter that even in genuinely dramatic situations (woman arrives at the door fleeing abuser), a dramatic response still isn't helpful. At that point you need to act normally (speak softly, get her a glass of water, help her calm down) rather than heightening the drama by rushing around and generally acting as though you were in a movie.

At that point you need to act normally (speak softly, get her a glass of water, help her calm down) rather than heightening the drama by rushing around and generally acting as though you were in a movie.

"Hollywood movie" =/= "movie with genuinely intelligent characters". I'd say, in such dramatic situations aspire to fully "rational" and reality-based reasoning but at the same time keep the "movie" attitude and self-image of a driven, altruistic and determined hero - that's what you (probably) want to want to be, after all.

After I started noticing this, I've been realizing that coffee is not as useful in improving my focus as I thought it was earlier.

"Improving your focus"? Wait, you think that the placebo effect and you self-signaling by adopting the identity of a Hard Worker... weren't "improving your focus"? Compartmentalize the epistemic from the instrumental, dude! Sometimes your instincts, narrative-building instinct included, are a LOT smarter than you can be. Chesterton's Fence: do you have an idea how the "narrativist" instinct might have been advantageous in a similar situation, so that the adaptation is triggering now? If you don't, you might not know enough to handle a manual override!

P.S. Ah, it's already been noted by other commenters. Still, I think that'd be a few Quirrel points minus! You exhibited a textbook bit of Spock Rationality and used it to self-handicap...

P.P.S. Damn, I'm speaking in LW jargon when I'm too lazy for proper English.

Here is why I think I'm better off. Earlier, I used to get my cup of coffee, and then go to my desk all pumped up, still feeding off from my narrative, and then work with hard focus for maybe 10 mins, following which I would open my browser, turn on some music and do shitty work for the following hour or so. I would then feel mentally foggy and distracted. Then I would notice that my narrative is getting hurt. And I know how to fix that! More coffee! So I'd probably go to coffee machine or walk over to the coffee shop. Come back to my desk. But now the extended break has made it even harder to find my focus again.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

Having realized how little coffee actually helps, when I feel distracted and feel the urge get more coffee, I'm now able to stay at my desk and continue working because I know that coffee isn't some magic drug which helps all the time.

So yes, it might help me get to my desk feeling good. But it sure as hell doesn't help me do good work.

The problem I think, might be that narratives put you into far mode, while actually making progress in real life requires near mode. Now, you might build a narrative where you are a near mode person, but it's feeding off from far mode fuzzies. And it's hard maintain both at the same time.

Interesting, I often use a coffee or bathroom break exactly because it allows me to stop working and get up from my desk, whether because I need a change of perspective to think about a problem or because I just don't feel like working and want to use a socially acceptable method to slack off for ten minutes. Then again, I drink tea instead of coffee, so I don't have the issue of taking in too much caffine at once and actually harming how I work. YMMV.

Narratives definetly seem to be far mode, yes - you can construct a narrative where you're a Good Worker or whatnot without actually doing any of the near mode activities. Maybe if you build the narrative consciously, actually trying to construct the proper narrative for your task, you can do the near mode tasks (write code, frex) and refer back to the narrative if you get stuck or start to slack off (a Good Worker wouldn't slack off on their unit tests, they Have Pride In Their Work and Want To Create Good Products).

[-][anonymous]8y 0

P.P.S. Damn, I'm speaking in LW jargon when I'm too lazy for proper English.

At least you used “P.S.” rather than “ETA:”. ;-)

BTW, I guess that part of the reason why this comment was upvoted that high is that it's written in LWese, because the content is just a worn-out cliché (though one I do agree with).