16:32
TEDxMidAtlantic

Tyler Cowen: Be suspicious of stories

Filmed:

Like all of us, economist Tyler Cowen loves a good story. But in this intriguing talk, he asks us to step away from thinking of our lives -- and our messy, complicated irrational world -- in terms of a simple narrative. (Filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic.)

- Economist
In his work, economist Tyler Cowen looks at clues from pop culture, art, food, to gather data and make observations on the world's globalizing culture and commerce. Full bio

I was told to come here
and tell you all stories,
00:12
but what I'd like to do is instead
tell you why I'm suspicious of stories,
00:15
why stories make me nervous.
00:19
In fact, the more inspired
a story makes me feel,
00:22
very often, the more nervous I get.
00:25
(Laughter)
00:27
So the best stories
are often the trickiest ones.
00:28
The good and bad things about stories
is that they are a kind of filter.
00:31
They take a lot of information,
and they leave some of it out,
00:34
and they keep some of it in.
00:37
But the thing about this filter is
that it always leaves the same things in.
00:39
You're always left
with the same few simple stories.
00:43
There is the old saying
that just about every story
00:46
can be summed up
as "a stranger came to town."
00:49
There is a book by Christopher Booker,
00:52
where he claims there are really
just seven types of stories.
00:54
There is monster, rags to riches, quest,
00:57
voyage and return,
comedy, tragedy, rebirth.
01:00
You don't have to agree
with that list exactly,
01:04
but the point is this:
if you think in terms of stories,
01:06
you're telling yourself the same things
over and over again.
01:09
There was a study done,
we asked some people--
01:13
people were asked to describe their lives.
01:22
When asked to describe their lives,
01:25
what is interesting
is how few people said "mess".
01:27
(Laughter)
01:30
It's probably the best answer,
I don't mean that in a bad way.
01:32
"Mess" can be liberating,
"mess" can be empowering,
01:36
"mess" can be a way
of drawing upon multiple strengths.
01:38
But what people wanted to say was,
"My life is a journey."
01:42
51% wanted to turn
his or her life into a story.
01:46
11% said, "My life is a battle."
Again, that is a kind of story.
01:51
8% said, "My life is a novel."
5% said, "My life is a play."
01:56
I don't think anyone said,
"My life is a reality TV show."
02:00
(Laughter)
02:03
But again, we're imposing order
on the mess we observe,
02:04
and it's taking the same patterns,
02:08
and the thing is when something
is in the form of a story,
02:10
often, we remember it when we shouldn't.
02:13
So how many of you know the story
02:15
about George Washington
and the cherry tree?
02:17
It's not obvious that is
exactly what happened.
02:20
The story of Paul Revere, it's not obvious
that that is exactly the way it happened.
02:22
So again, we should be
suspicious of stories.
02:27
We're biologically programmed
to respond to them.
02:31
They contain a lot of information.
They have social power.
02:34
They connect us to other people.
02:37
So they are like a candy that we're fed
02:39
when we consume political information,
when we read novels.
02:42
When we read non-fiction books,
we're really being fed stories.
02:45
Non-fiction is, in a sense,
the new fiction.
02:48
The book may happen to say true things,
02:51
but again, everything's taking
the same form of these stories.
02:54
So what are the problems
of relying too heavily on stories?
02:58
You view your life like this
03:02
instead of the mess
that it is or it ought to be.
03:04
But more specifically,
I think of a few major problems
03:07
when we think too much
in terms of narrative.
03:11
First, narratives tend to be too simple,
03:15
for the point of a narrative
is to strip it away,
03:17
not just into 18 minutes,
03:19
but most narratives
you can present in a sentence or two.
03:21
When you strip away detail,
03:24
you tend to tell stories
in terms of good versus evil,
03:26
whether it's a story about your own life
or a story about politics.
03:30
I know some things actually are
good versus evil, we all know this, right?
03:34
But I think, as a general rule,
03:38
we're too inclined to tell
the good versus evil story.
03:39
As a simple rule of thumb,
03:44
just imagine that every time
you're telling a good versus evil story,
03:45
you're basically lowering your IQ
by ten points or more.
03:49
If you just adopt that
as a kind of inner mental habit,
03:53
it's, in my view, one way to get
a lot smarter pretty quickly.
03:57
You don't have to read any books.
04:00
Just imagine yourself pressing a button
04:01
every time you tell
the good versus evil story,
04:04
and by pressing that button,
04:06
you're lowering your IQ
by ten points or more.
04:08
Another set of stories that are popular--
04:11
if you know Oliver Stone's movies,
or Michael Moore's movies,
04:13
you can't make a movie and say:
"It was all a big accident."
04:16
No, it has to be a conspiracy,
people plotting together,
04:20
because in a story,
a story is about intention.
04:24
A story is not about spontaneous order
or complex human institutions
04:28
which are the product of human action,
but not of human design.
04:32
No, a story is about evil people
plotting together.
04:35
So when you hear stories about plots,
04:39
or even stories about good people
plotting things together,
04:42
just like when you're watching movies,
04:45
this, again, is reason to be suspicious.
04:47
As a good rule of thumb, if you're asking:
04:50
"When I hear a story, when should I
be especially suspicious?"
04:52
If you hear a story and you think:
"Wow, that would make a great movie!"
04:55
(Laughter)
05:00
That's when the "uh-oh" reaction
should pop in a bit more,
05:01
and you should start thinking in terms
05:05
of how the whole thing
is maybe a bit of a mess.
05:07
Another common story or storyline is
the claim that we "have to get tough".
05:11
You'll hear this in so many contexts.
05:17
We have to get tough with the banks.
We had to get tough with the labor unions.
05:19
We need to get tough
with some other country,
05:24
some foreign dictator,
someone we're negotiating with.
05:26
Again, the point is not
against getting tough.
05:30
Sometimes we should get tough.
05:33
That we got tough with the Nazis
was a good thing.
05:34
But this is again a story we fall back
upon all too readily, all too quickly.
05:38
When we don't really know
why something happened,
05:44
we blame someone, and we say:
"We need to get tough with them!"
05:46
As if it had never occurred
to your predecessor,
05:50
this idea of getting tough.
05:52
I view it usually
as a kind of mental laziness.
05:54
It's a simple story you tell:
"We need to get tough,
05:58
we needed to get tough,
we will have to get tough."
06:01
Usually, that is a kind of warning signal.
06:04
Another kind of problem with stories is
06:07
you can only fit so many stories
into your mind at once,
06:10
or in the course of a day,
or even over the course of a lifetime.
06:14
So your stories are serving
too many purposes.
06:17
For instance, just to get
out of bed in the morning,
06:20
you tell yourself the story
06:23
that your job is really important,
what you're doing is really important
06:25
(Laughter)
06:28
and maybe it is, but I tell myself
that story even when it's not.
06:30
And you know what? That story works.
06:36
It gets me out of bed.
06:38
It's a kind of self-deception,
06:40
but the problem comes
when I need to change that story.
06:42
The whole point of the story is
that I grab onto it and I hold it,
06:45
and it gets me out of bed.
06:49
So when I'm really doing something
that is actually just a waste of time,
06:51
in my mess of a life,
06:55
I'm too tied into my story
that got me out of bed,
06:56
and ideally, I ought to have some
very complex story map in my mind,
07:01
you know, with combinatorials
and a matrix of computation, and the like,
07:05
but that is not how stories work.
07:08
Stories in order to work
have to be simple,
07:10
easily grasped, easily told
to others, easily remembered.
07:12
So stories will serve dual
and conflicting purposes,
07:16
and very often they will lead us astray.
07:19
I used to think I was
within the camp of economists,
07:22
I was one of the good guys,
and I was allied with other good guys,
07:25
and we were fighting
the ideas of the bad guys.
07:29
I used to think that!
07:32
And probably, I was wrong.
07:34
Maybe sometimes, I'm one of the good guys,
07:36
but on some issues, I finally realized:
"Hey, I wasn't one of the good guys."
07:38
I'm not sure I was the bad guy
in the sense of having evil intent,
07:43
but it was very hard for me
to get away with that story.
07:46
One interesting thing
about cognitive biases
07:51
is they are the subject
of so many books these days.
07:55
There's the Nudge book,
the Sway book, the Blink book,
07:58
like the one-title book,
08:02
all about the ways in which we screw up.
08:04
And there are so many ways,
08:07
but what I find interesting
is that none of these books identify
08:09
what, to me, is the single, central,
most important way we screw up,
08:12
and that is that we tell
ourselves too many stories,
08:17
or we are too easily seduced by stories.
08:20
Why don't these books tell us that?
08:23
It's because the books themselves
are all about stories.
08:25
The more of these books you read,
you're learning about some of your biases,
08:29
but you're making some
of your other biases essentially worse.
08:32
So the books themselves
are part of your cognitive bias.
08:36
Often, people buy them
as a kind of talisman, like:
08:40
"I bought this book. I won't be
'Predictably Irrational'."
08:43
(Laughter)
08:47
It's like people want to hear the worst,
08:49
so psychologically, they can prepare
for it or defend against it.
08:51
It's why there is
such a market for pessimism.
08:55
But to think that by buying the book
gets you somewhere,
08:58
that's maybe the bigger fallacy.
09:01
It's just like the evidence that shows
that the most dangerous people
09:03
are those who have been taught
some financial literacy.
09:06
They're the ones who go out
and make the worst mistakes.
09:09
It's the people who realize
they don't know anything at all,
09:12
that end up doing pretty well.
09:15
A third problem with stories
09:17
is that outsiders
manipulate us using stories,
09:19
and we all like to think advertising
only works on the other guy,
09:22
but, of course, that's not how it is,
advertising works on all of us.
09:25
So if you're too attached to stories,
09:30
what will happen is people
selling products come along,
09:32
and they will bundle
their product with a story.
09:37
You're like, "Hey, a free story!"
09:39
And you end up buying the product,
09:41
because the product
and the story go together.
09:42
(Laugther)
09:44
If you think about how capitalism works,
09:45
there is a bias here.
09:47
Let's consider two kinds
of stories about cars.
09:49
Story A is: "Buy this car,
09:52
and you will have beautiful, romantic
partners and a fascinating life."
09:55
(Laughter)
09:58
There are a lot of people
10:01
who have a financial incentive
to promote that story.
10:02
But, say, the alternative story is:
10:05
"You don't actually need a car
as nice as your income would indicate.
10:07
What you usually do is look
at what your peers do and copy them.
10:11
That is a good heuristic
for lots of problems,
10:15
but when it comes to cars,
just buy a Toyota."
10:17
(Laughter)
10:19
Maybe Toyota has an incentive there,
10:21
but even Toyota is making
more money off the luxury cars,
10:23
and less money off the cheaper cars.
10:26
So if you think which set of stories
you end up hearing,
10:28
you end up hearing the glamor stories,
the seductive stories,
10:31
and again I'm telling you,
don't trust them.
10:34
There are people using
your love of stories to manipulate you.
10:37
Pull back and say:
10:42
"What are the messages,
10:43
what are the stories
that no one has an incentive to tell?"
10:44
Start telling yourself those, and then see
if any of your decisions change.
10:47
That is one simple way.
10:51
You can never get out of the pattern
of thinking in terms of stories,
10:53
but you can improve the extent
to which you think in stories,
10:57
and make some better decisions.
11:00
So if I'm thinking about this talk,
I'm wondering, of course,
11:03
what is it you take away from this talk?
11:06
What story do you take away
from Tyler Cowen?
11:09
One story you might be
like the story of the quest.
11:13
"Tyler was a man on a quest.
11:16
Tyler came here, and he told us
not to think so much in terms of stories."
11:19
That would be a story
you could tell about this talk.
11:25
(Laughter)
11:27
It would fit a pretty well-known pattern.
11:29
You might remember it.
You could tell it to other people.
11:31
"This weird guy came, and he said,
11:34
'Don't think in terms of stories.
Let me tell you what happened today!'"
11:36
(Laughter)
11:39
And you tell your story.
11:40
(Laugther)
11:42
Another possibility is
you might tell a story of rebirth.
11:45
You might say, "I used to think
too much in terms of stories
11:49
(Laughter)
11:54
but then I heard Tyler Cowen
11:56
(Laughter)
11:58
and now I think less in terms of stories!"
11:59
That too is a narrative you will remember,
12:03
you can tell to other people,
and again, it may stick.
12:05
You also could tell
a story of deep tragedy.
12:10
"This guy Tyler Cowen came
12:15
(Laughter)
12:17
and he told us not to think
in terms of stories,
12:18
but all he could do was tell us stories
12:20
(Laughter)
12:22
about how other people think
too much in terms of stories."
12:23
(Laughter)
12:27
So, today, which is it?
Is it like quest, rebirth, tragedy?
12:30
Or maybe some combination of the three?
12:35
I'm really not sure,
and I'm not here to tell you
12:38
to burn your DVD player
and throw out your Tolstoy.
12:41
To think in terms of stories
is fundamentally human.
12:45
There is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez
memoir "Living to Tell the Tale"
12:50
that we use memory in stories
to make sense of what we've done,
12:56
to give meaning to our lives, to establish
connections with other people.
12:59
None of this will go away,
should go away, or can go away.
13:03
But again, as an economist,
I'm thinking about life on the margin,
13:08
the extra decision.
13:13
Should we think more in terms of stories,
or less in terms of stories?
13:14
When we hear stories,
should we be more suspicious?
13:19
And what kind of stories
should we be suspicious of?
13:23
Again, I'm telling you it's the stories,
very often, that you like the most,
13:25
that you find the most rewarding,
the most inspiring.
13:30
The stories that don't focus
on opportunity cost,
13:34
or the complex, unintended
consequences of human action,
13:38
because that very often
does not make for a good story.
13:41
So often a story is a story
of triumph, a story of struggle;
13:45
there are opposing forces,
which are either evil or ignorant;
13:50
there is a person on a quest,
someone making a voyage,
13:55
and a stranger coming to town.
13:58
And those are your categories,
but don't let them make you too happy.
14:01
(Laughter)
14:06
As an alternative,
14:09
at the margin
- again, no burning of Tolstoy -
14:11
but just be a little more messy.
14:15
If I actually had to live those journeys,
and quests, and battles,
14:18
that would be so oppressive to me!
14:23
It's like, my goodness,
can't I just have my life
14:25
in its messy, ordinary
- I hesitate to use the word - glory
14:28
but that it's fun for me?
14:31
Do I really have to follow
some kind of narrative?
14:33
Can't I just live?
14:36
So be more comfortable with messy.
14:37
Be more comfortable with agnostic,
14:41
and I mean this about the things
that make you feel good.
14:44
It's so easy to pick out
a few areas to be agnostic in,
14:46
and then feel good about it,
14:49
like, "I am agnostic
about religion, or politics."
14:50
It's a kind of portfolio move you make
to be more dogmatic elsewhere, right?
14:54
(Laughter)
14:59
Sometimes,
15:01
the most intellectually trustworthy people
are the ones who pick one area,
15:02
and they are totally dogmatic in that,
so pig-headedly unreasonable,
15:05
that you think,
"How can they possibly believe that?"
15:09
But it soaks up their stubbornness,
15:11
and then, on other things,
they can be pretty open-minded.
15:16
So don't fall into the trap of thinking
because you're agnostic on some things,
15:19
that you're being fundamentally reasonable
15:23
about your self-deception, your stories,
and your open-mindedness.
15:25
(Laughter)
15:28
[Think about] this idea of hovering,
of epistemological hovering,
15:30
and messiness, and incompleteness,
15:34
[and how] not everything
ties up into a neat bow,
15:38
and you're really not on a journey here.
15:41
You're here for some
messy reason or reasons,
15:43
and maybe you don't know what it is,
and maybe I don't know what it is,
15:46
but anyway, I'm happy to be invited,
and thank you all for listening.
15:50
(Laughter)
15:54
(Applause)
15:55
Translated by Brian Greene

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About the Speaker:

Tyler Cowen - Economist
In his work, economist Tyler Cowen looks at clues from pop culture, art, food, to gather data and make observations on the world's globalizing culture and commerce.

Why you should listen

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University, and partners with Alex Tabarrok to write the economics blog Marginal Revolution, where he hunts for clues to whatever is coming next, in the space where economics and culture entwine. His outlook is fairly libertarian, but it's not ivory-tower -- in fact, he's been accused of "cute-o-nomics" for daring to use economic models to explain real-world problems instead of theoretical abstractions.

His latest book is a short ebook called The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. In it, he suggests that while the days of easy growth are probably over for the US, it's probably not in a death spiral just yet.

Cowen is also a passionate foodie (check out his blog Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide); in fact, his next book is An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.

Find a transcript for Tyler Cowen's TEDxMidAtlantic talk on lesswrong.com >>

More profile about the speaker
Tyler Cowen | Speaker | TED.com