Narrative Neediness

Jesse Walker on how our need for narrative creates a market for both conspiracy theory and fake and slanted news:

For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative. They expect news stories to look like the movies or TV shows that they’re familiar with. Even if they’re regular journalism consumers, the stories they remember best are these well done stories that tell a compelling narrative and make them feel like they’re watching a movie or TV show.

In reality, stories are messy and have real loose ends. That’s the real bias that readers have to combat, and it’s something that people in the media have to think about. Because, on the one hand we want to provide good, compelling narratives, but on the other hand, we don’t want people to think they live in this world that’s made up of these easy, compelling narratives. They don’t.

I  used to teach statistical literacy and narratives — even in a smaller sense–  were the biggest problem. You’d take a stat like “Only 4% of college students are black males” and ask students to think about what that might mean statistically, and no matter how much you would try to keep them inside the numbers for even a few minutes, they would race towards narratives. The conservative kids would rush towards “Well, maybe they are just underprepared, and that’s why…” The liberal kids would immediately start talking about how they faced discrimination, or grew up in bad neighborhoods.

Lost in the debate: how much under-representation does that figure indicate? How much would you have to increase the participation rate to achieve an equitable result?

If you stop the students, already lost in their narratives, and ask them what that statistic says about equitable representation they will tell you a variety of things — you need to increase participation by 94%, or get 9 times the amount of black males into college. But of course, the black male population is about 6% of the population, so while such a figure shows a severe race-based deficit — about 33% — it’s not nearly as much as all the students, on both sides of the partisan divide, read from that number.

And this matters, because the “black males aren’t in college” narrative is a pretty impoverished narrative. There’s actually an awful lot of black male students in college. But which colleges? Do they persist? Why not? How could we do better at supporting their needs and creating better opportunities? There are so many interesting and useful questions to ask.

Is this just confirmation bias by another name? I don’t think so. You could watch this process with students and statistics even where they had no pre-existing bias towards a result. Cancer rates in this country, for example, have skyrocketed: there are more people living with cancer than ever before. Give this to students and instantly it blossoms into a wide variety of compelling stories about water quality and plastic containers, or failure of people to take responsibility for themselves, or the good old days when people had home cooked meals, or any one of two dozen other stories. And you can watch students sometimes jump between contradictory narratives — half the time they just want to find a resting place in a narrative: which one is irrelevant.

Once the narrative is chosen, thinking stops, and you can almost see the students’ shoulders relax.

(A few seconds of thought will get you to a better answer: as five-year cancer survival rates increase and other causes of death decrease there are more people than ever living with cancer because our medical care is getting better. Of course, that’s not much of a story…).

That moment when the facts slot into a narrative eventually comes for everyone. It has to; we’re human and what we want is meaning. But I’m  interested in delaying its arrival, if only for a little bit. And the question I have is how we can orient our pedagogy and digital interfaces to increase that delay, and in the process construct some narratives that are a bit less tidy and a bit more useful.

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