R2 – response to readings

The unusual tale of Samantha Azzopardi, the girl who serially pretended to have been trafficked, abused, and generally terribly mistreated, really does illustrate the power of storytelling to compel humans’ thinking. The central lesson of her story is that in the case of story-worthy events, the unfolding of which is predicated on larger emotions, it’s simply very common to find that the facts only matter so much. The temptation here is to decompose any event into two halves: the event as it happened (the literal and real), and the human narrativization and retelling of the event (the understood and felt). This is probably not fair. Without wandering too far off into the phenomenological weeds, suffice it to say that our understanding is flawed; we don’t reach decisions merely by the careful study of facts; and there are some with a subtle understanding of human habits of mind that will take advantage of this for their own reasons.

Given the choice between believing facts and story, it’s the narrative garlanding the facts that seems to be infinitely more compelling and meaningful to humans. (Konnikova quotes Jerome Bruner on this: his dichotomy is between “propositional” and “narrative” thought.) We have built our judicial system as a way to help insulate ourselves from making decisions on important matters of guilt and innocence without careful focus paid to the facts of a matter. But consider that the larger political decisions—in fact, frequently the content of political speech in general—do not rely so much on knowable and provable ideas as they do on the different ways of framing these ideas.

The Chater and Lowenstein piece raises questions for me only in a meta sense. I was incredulous when I turned the page and discovered that they had, in fact, boiled down human sense-making into a tidy equation with funny notation. (I suppose this is the entire stock in trade of economists, to be fair.) Once they’d gotten that far, of course the next step was to draw equivalences, trade variables around, re-express them in terms of each other, etc. Once they’d built the math, they could manipulate it just like any other math. It seems like such an insane fool’s errand. However, there may well be a point to be made that the decisions we make, in a general sense, are more predetermined and less the expression of our own perceived agency than we would like to believe. In essence, it’s quite possible that we are mostly deterministic thinkers—that given the same circumstances (“inputs”) we would quite often arrive at the same decision (“output”) even if we believe we are in the moment deciding something. We may, in essence, be “doing the math” in our heads—I just have no faith at all that the math we’re doing looks anything like the math described in this paper.

Leave a Reply