One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event. There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership. We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.
In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever. We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.
But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them. And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.
This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”
Being smart is no get of jail free card!
If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data. This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’. In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.
That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives. This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.
He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.
Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.” That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”
Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.
Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence. I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe. However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?
Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!