Good Guys Bad Guys and Narrative

I think a lot about narrative. While I find reason and empiricism very important tools, we rarely use them, preferring narrative as a heuristic. It’s much more efficient–if often much less accurate. I’m fascinated by how much more we are influenced by narrative and allow it to blind us to others and ourselves. People are pattern building critters and what’s more they are narrative building critters. Your unconscious tries to discern intention and agency behind almost every complex piece of information you encounter.

At the lowest level, we’re wired to see patterns and our pattern recognition is dialed up so high, we see patterns even when they’re not there. Have you looked at the clouds and seen a rabbit or a dragon or some other shape? Have you mistaken a jacket hanging on a door for someone looming there? Have you ever jumped at shape that turned out not to be what you thought? The reason we work this way is often attributed to an evolutionary advantage: If you run away from a bush that moved thinking it’s a tiger and it’s in fact just the wind, you survive. If you don’t run away from a bush that moved and it is a tiger, you get eaten and don’t pass on your genes.

It almost has to work this way. Our brains never have complete information and must constantly use partial information to generate our model of the world around us. Part of that pattern recognition is the attribution of agency: deciding something is acting on its own. Deciding, more or less, that it’s alive. Back to the tiger again.

We not only over-actively see patterns and living things, we also project narratives on almost everything. As an example, here’s the Heider-Simmel video:


The above comes from research published in 1944 by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel.[1] You immediately built a story around what you saw, but here’s the thing: these are abstract shapes moving around. The story doesn’t really exist except in your head. The Heider-Simmel video is obviously built to produce that result, but there are simpler examples of attribution of narrative–social behavior attributed to perceived agents. Scientific American has a great article on this.

You over-percieve patterns in general. You over-percieve agency. You over-perceive narrative. Now imagine someone brings up a political issue. Do you think you try to apply a narrative to the issue? Economist Arnold Kling wrote the short book The Three Languages of Politics where he argues that we (at least in the US) use one of three dominant heuristics for perceiving the political. Essentially three base narratives that we apply.

The first dominant heuristic is one I associate with progressives (henceforth Ps). Ps … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of oppressors and oppressed.

The second dominant heuristic is one I associate with conservatives (henceforth Cs) Cs … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of civilization and barbarism.

The third dominant heuristic is one I associate with libertarians (henceforth Ls). Ls … are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of freedom and coercion.

There’s a real sense in which these are the models of reality that are within people’s heads. The models matter as they influence what you can perceive. The term for seeing patterns in random noise–as our over active pattern detection is wont to do–is apophenia and when the experience involves images and sounds it is called pareidolia. [2] It’s what you’re experiencing when you listen to a record backwards and hear hidden messages. It’s even easier to experience if someone primes you–tells you what to expect to hear. They give you a model to match your expectations to and it’s much easier for your mind to confirm that model than to imagine a whole new one.

Michael Shermer illustrates the effect in this excerpt of his Ted Talk:

Shermer discusses pareidolia

If we can appreciate Kling and Shermer’s points, it’s not hard to see how we can project our political narrative on situations where it’s probably doesn’t really apply. [3] And then when we try to reason with someone whose narrative conflicts, we can become so angry with them when they willfully ignore the narrative so obvious to us. Not only does that narrative give us a model of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, it gets in our way of discussing reality with other people whose narratives may be different from our own.

What kind of narratives do you automatically apply to what you encounter? What kind of narratives are you applying to yourself and your life? Are they real or are they apophenia?

  1. Sadly, Marianne Simmel has no wikipedia page.  ↩
  2. I first encountered the term in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, still one of my favorite books. The theme of apophenia runs thought the book and is a powerful challenge of the information saturated age we find ourselves in.  ↩
  3. You don’t have to agree with Kling’s specific claim for this to be true. Our models of social and political behavior are more complex and nuanced, but his idea, while perhaps not rigorous, seems a good general rule.  ↩