full transcript
"From the Ted Talk by Tyler Cowen: Be suspicious of simple stories"

Unscramble the Blue Letters

I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I'd like to do is instead tell you why I'm suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often, the more nervous I get. (laetguhr) So the best stories are often the trickiest ones. The good and bad things about stories is that they are a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter is that it always leaves the same things in. You're always left with the same few simple stories. There is the old saying that just about every story can be smmued up as "a stgnraer came to town." There is a book by Christopher booekr, where he claims there are really just seven types of stories. There is monster, rags to riches, quest, vgayoe and return, ceodmy, tragedy, rebirth. You don't have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this: if you think in terms of stories, you're telling yourself the same things over and over again. There was a study done, we asked some people— people were asked to describe their lives. When asked to describe their lives, what is interesting is how few people said "mess". (Laughter) It's probably the best answer, I don't mean that in a bad way. "Mess" can be liberating, "mess" can be empowering, "mess" can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wteand to say was, "My life is a journey." 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, "My life is a battle." Again, that is a kind of story. 8% said, "My life is a novel." 5% said, "My life is a play." I don't think anyone said, "My life is a reality TV show." (Laughter) But again, we're imposing order on the mess we observe, and it's taking the same patterns, and the thing is when something is in the form of a story, often, we remember it when we shouldn't. So how many of you know the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? It's not obvious that is exactly what happened. The story of Paul Revere, it's not obvious that that is exactly the way it happened. So again, we should be suspicious of stories. We're biologically paegmormrd to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They cecnnot us to other people. So they are like a candy that we're fed when we consume political information, when we read novles. When we read non-fiction books, we're really being fed stories. Non-fiction is, in a ssene, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but again, everything's taking the same form of these stories. So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like this instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be. But more specifically, I think of a few major polberms when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple, for the point of a narrative is to strip it away, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you can present in a sneetcne or two. When you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good versus evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about ptloiics. I know some things actually are good versus evil, we all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good versus evil story. As a spmile rule of thumb, just inaimge that every time you're teillng a good versus evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just aopdt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot srtamer pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a bttoun every time you tell the good versus evil story, and by psisreng that button, you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more. Another set of stories that are popular— if you know Oliver Stone's movies, or Michael Moore's mioves, you can't make a movie and say: "It was all a big accident." No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because in a story, a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous odrer or complex human institutions which are the puocdrt of haumn action, but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So when you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people pottlnig things together, just like when you're watching movies, this, again, is reason to be suspicious. As a good rule of thumb, if you're asking: "When I hear a story, when should I be especially suspicious?" If you hear a story and you think: "Wow, that would make a great movie!" (Laughter) That's when the "uh-oh" reaction should pop in a bit more, and you should start thinking in terms of how the whole thing is maybe a bit of a mess. Another common story or storyline is the claim that we "have to get tough". You'll hear this in so many contexts. We have to get tough with the banks. We had to get tough with the labor unions. We need to get tough with some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we're negotiating with. Again, the point is not against getting tough. Sometimes we should get tough. That we got tuogh with the Nazis was a good thing. But this is again a story we fall back upon all too readily, all too quickly. When we don't really know why something happened, we blame someone, and we say: "We need to get tough with them!" As if it had never orcceurd to your peecresdsor, this idea of getting tough. I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness. It's a simple story you tell: "We need to get tough, we needed to get tough, we will have to get tough." Usually, that is a kind of warning signal. Another kind of plbroem with stories is you can only fit so many stories into your mind at once, or in the course of a day, or even over the course of a litiemfe. So your stories are serving too many purposes. For instance, just to get out of bed in the mnonirg, you tell yourself the story that your job is really important, what you're doing is really itrnmoapt (Laughter) and maybe it is, but I tell myself that story even when it's not. And you know what? That story works. It gets me out of bed. It's a kind of self-deception, but the problem comes when I need to change that story. The whole point of the story is that I grab onto it and I hold it, and it gets me out of bed. So when I'm really doing something that is actually just a waste of time, in my mess of a life, I'm too tied into my story that got me out of bed, and iaedlly, I ought to have some very complex story map in my mind, you know, with cobamlrntioais and a matrix of computation, and the like, but that is not how stories work. Stories in order to work have to be simple, easily grasped, easily told to others, easily remembered. So stories will sevre dual and conflicting purposes, and very often they will lead us artsay. I used to think I was within the camp of eooitscnms, I was one of the good guys, and I was allied with other good guys, and we were fighting the ideas of the bad guys. I used to think that! And probably, I was wrong. Maybe sometimes, I'm one of the good guys, but on some iusses, I finally realized: "Hey, I wasn't one of the good guys." I'm not sure I was the bad guy in the sense of having evil intent, but it was very hard for me to get away with that story. One interesting thing about cognitive biases is they are the subject of so many bkoos these days. There's the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we sercw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books idtenify what, to me, is the sinlge, central, most important way we screw up, and that is that we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too eailsy secdeud by stories. Why don't these books tell us that? It's because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you're learning about some of your biases, but you're making some of your other biases essentially wsore. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like: "I bought this book. I won't be 'Predictably Irrational'." (Laughter) It's like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It's why there is such a market for pessimism. But to think that by buying the book gets you somewhere, that's maybe the bigger fallacy. It's just like the eenidvce that sowhs that the most dangerous people are those who have been tguaht some financial literacy. They're the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It's the people who realize they don't know anything at all, that end up doing pretty well. A third problem with stories is that outsiders manipulate us using stories, and we all like to think advertising only works on the other guy, but, of course, that's not how it is, advertising works on all of us. So if you're too attached to stories, what will happen is people selling products come along, and they will bundle their product with a story. You're like, "Hey, a free story!" And you end up buying the product, because the product and the story go together. (Laugther) If you think about how capitalism works, there is a bias here. Let's consider two kinds of stories about cars. Story A is: "Buy this car, and you will have beautiful, ratoimnc partners and a fascinating life." (Laughter) There are a lot of plopee who have a financial incentive to ptroome that stroy. But, say, the alternative story is: "You don't actually need a car as nice as your imncoe would indicate. What you usually do is look at what your prees do and copy them. That is a good hsriieutc for lots of problems, but when it comes to cars, just buy a Toyota." (Laughter) Maybe Toyota has an incentive there, but even tytooa is making more money off the luxury cars, and less mnoey off the cheaper cars. So if you think which set of stories you end up hearing, you end up hearing the glamor stories, the seductive stories, and again I'm telling you, don't trust them. There are people using your love of stories to manipulate you. Pull back and say: "What are the messages, what are the sorteis that no one has an icnvtneie to tell?" Start telling yourself those, and then see if any of your decisions change. That is one simple way. You can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent to which you think in stories, and make some better decisions. So if I'm thinking about this talk, I'm wondering, of course, what is it you take away from this talk? What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen? One story you might be like the story of the quest. "Tyler was a man on a quest. Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories." That would be a story you could tell about this talk. (Laughter) It would fit a pretty well-known pattern. You might remember it. You could tell it to other people. "This weird guy came, and he said, 'Don't think in terms of stories. Let me tell you what happened today!'" (Laughter) And you tell your story. (Laugther) Another possibility is you might tell a story of rtrebih. You might say, "I used to think too much in terms of stories (Laughter) but then I heard tlyer Cowen (Laughter) and now I think less in terms of stories!" That too is a narrative you will remember, you can tell to other people, and again, it may stick. You also could tell a story of deep tragedy. "This guy Tyler cweon came (Laughter) and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories (Laughter) about how other people think too much in terms of stories." (Laughter) So, taody, which is it? Is it like quest, rebirth, tgdarey? Or maybe some combination of the three? I'm really not sure, and I'm not here to tell you to burn your DVD player and throw out your Tolstoy. To think in terms of stories is fundamentally human. There is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez memoir "Living to Tell the Tale" that we use memory in stories to make sense of what we've done, to give meaning to our lives, to eabtislsh connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away. But again, as an economist, I'm thiiknng about life on the margin, the extra decision. Should we think more in terms of stories, or less in tmres of stories? When we hear stories, should we be more sicpisuous? And what kind of stories should we be suspicious of? Again, I'm telling you it's the stories, very often, that you like the most, that you find the most rewarding, the most inspiring. The stories that don't focus on opportunity cost, or the complex, unintended consequences of human action, because that very often does not make for a good story. So often a story is a story of triumph, a story of struggle; there are opposing forces, which are either evil or ignorant; there is a person on a quest, someone minakg a voyage, and a stranger coming to town. And those are your categories, but don't let them make you too happy. (Laughter) As an alternative, at the mragin - again, no burning of Tolstoy - but just be a little more messy. If I actually had to live those jnoyerus, and quests, and battles, that would be so oppressive to me! It's like, my goodness, can't I just have my life in its messy, odnrairy - I hesitate to use the word - glory but that it's fun for me? Do I really have to follow some kind of narrative? Can't I just live? So be more comfortable with messy. Be more comfortable with agnostic, and I mean this about the things that make you feel good. It's so easy to pick out a few aares to be aonsgtic in, and then feel good about it, like, "I am agnostic about religion, or politics." It's a kind of portfolio move you make to be more dogmatic elsewhere, right? (Laughter) Sometimes, the most iltelnaleuclty trustworthy people are the ones who pick one area, and they are totally dtmigaoc in that, so pig-headedly uanrsonaelbe, that you think, "How can they pbslosiy believe that?" But it saoks up their sbnsbnroteus, and then, on other things, they can be pretty open-minded. So don't fall into the trap of thinking because you're agnostic on some things, that you're being fundamentally reasonable about your self-deception, your stories, and your open-mindedness. (Laughter) [Think about] this idea of hoiernvg, of eiomlsaotgcpeil hovering, and messiness, and incompleteness, [and how] not everything ties up into a neat bow, and you're really not on a journey here. You're here for some msesy reason or rnoaess, and maybe you don't know what it is, and maybe I don't know what it is, but anyway, I'm happy to be invited, and thank you all for listening. (Laughter) (Applause)

Open Cloze

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

Solution

  1. tragedy
  2. occurred
  3. serve
  4. messy
  5. problems
  6. rebirth
  7. terms
  8. taught
  9. programmed
  10. tyler
  11. ordinary
  12. connect
  13. imagine
  14. politics
  15. heuristic
  16. story
  17. smarter
  18. romantic
  19. predecessor
  20. cowen
  21. pressing
  22. making
  23. today
  24. seduced
  25. stubbornness
  26. epistemological
  27. sentence
  28. promote
  29. reasons
  30. worse
  31. areas
  32. dogmatic
  33. product
  34. suspicious
  35. novels
  36. laughter
  37. stranger
  38. adopt
  39. movies
  40. money
  41. books
  42. plotting
  43. button
  44. easily
  45. economists
  46. soaks
  47. incentive
  48. intellectually
  49. problem
  50. thinking
  51. human
  52. evidence
  53. margin
  54. voyage
  55. toyota
  56. booker
  57. journeys
  58. issues
  59. tough
  60. wanted
  61. telling
  62. lifetime
  63. combinatorials
  64. unreasonable
  65. order
  66. stories
  67. screw
  68. astray
  69. agnostic
  70. shows
  71. sense
  72. single
  73. comedy
  74. income
  75. important
  76. hovering
  77. possibly
  78. establish
  79. summed
  80. identify
  81. peers
  82. simple
  83. morning
  84. people
  85. ideally

Original Text

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

ngrams of length 2

collocation frequency
good guys 4
evil story 3
people plotting 3
tyler cowen 3
stories laughter 3

Important Words

  1. accident
  2. action
  3. adopt
  4. advertising
  5. agnostic
  6. agree
  7. allied
  8. alternative
  9. answer
  10. applause
  11. area
  12. areas
  13. asked
  14. astray
  15. attached
  16. bad
  17. banks
  18. basically
  19. battle
  20. battles
  21. beautiful
  22. bed
  23. bias
  24. biases
  25. big
  26. bigger
  27. biologically
  28. bit
  29. blame
  30. blink
  31. book
  32. booker
  33. books
  34. bought
  35. bow
  36. bundle
  37. burn
  38. burning
  39. button
  40. buy
  41. buying
  42. camp
  43. candy
  44. capitalism
  45. car
  46. cars
  47. categories
  48. central
  49. change
  50. cheaper
  51. cherry
  52. christopher
  53. claim
  54. claims
  55. cognitive
  56. combination
  57. combinatorials
  58. comedy
  59. comfortable
  60. coming
  61. common
  62. complex
  63. computation
  64. conflicting
  65. connect
  66. connections
  67. consequences
  68. conspiracy
  69. consume
  70. contexts
  71. copy
  72. cost
  73. country
  74. cowen
  75. dangerous
  76. day
  77. days
  78. decision
  79. decisions
  80. deep
  81. defend
  82. describe
  83. design
  84. detail
  85. dictator
  86. dogmatic
  87. drawing
  88. dual
  89. dvd
  90. easily
  91. easy
  92. economist
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  96. essentially
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  102. fact
  103. fall
  104. fallacy
  105. fascinating
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  107. feel
  108. fiction
  109. fighting
  110. filter
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  114. fit
  115. focus
  116. follow
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  118. foreign
  119. form
  120. free
  121. fun
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  124. garcia
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  155. imagine
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  158. improve
  159. incentive
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  290. rags
  291. reaction
  292. read
  293. readily
  294. reality
  295. realize
  296. reason
  297. reasonable
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  299. rebirth
  300. religion
  301. relying
  302. remember
  303. remembered
  304. respond
  305. return
  306. revere
  307. rewarding
  308. riches
  309. romantic
  310. rule
  311. screw
  312. seduced
  313. seductive
  314. selling
  315. sense
  316. sentence
  317. serve
  318. serving
  319. set
  320. show
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  322. signal
  323. simple
  324. single
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  327. social
  328. specifically
  329. spontaneous
  330. start
  331. stick
  332. stories
  333. story
  334. storyline
  335. stranger
  336. strengths
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  338. stubbornness
  339. study
  340. subject
  341. summed
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  345. talk
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  348. ten
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  352. throw
  353. thumb
  354. tied
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  356. time
  357. today
  358. told
  359. tolstoy
  360. totally
  361. tough
  362. town
  363. toyota
  364. tragedy
  365. trap
  366. tree
  367. trickiest
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  369. true
  370. trust
  371. trustworthy
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  374. tyler
  375. types
  376. unintended
  377. unions
  378. unreasonable
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  380. voyage
  381. wanted
  382. warning
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  386. ways
  387. weird
  388. wondering
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  394. wrong