Nassim Taleb

The Back Swan

Narrative Fallacy

Chapter 6





Taleb says, "We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy."


The narrative fallacy is really a problem with information. Information needs (according to Taleb, "wants") to be reduced. Ordered, categorized information is compressed. It requires less storage room (in brains or wherever). We had to invent categories in order to avoid being overwhelmed by details. We had to invent the forest so we wouldn't be blinded by the trees.

Taleb says that in the process of simplifying information, we loose sight of black swans. Since (before the fact) black swans cannot play any part in a story, we leave them out of the narrative. However, once a black swan happens, it can (and must) be fitted into our narratives. That is why we become obsessed with historical black swans - not as black swans but as events in a narrative.

Our Relationship to Narratives

We are biologically programmed to love stories. Finding pattens increases levels of the naturally occurring pleasure chemical, dopamine. Trying to look at unordered random data is physically painful.

We remember categorized information better than random data. Memory tricks involve creating easy-to-remember associations.

Narratives are therapeutic. They explain the chaos. (According to Mircea Eliade, explaining chaos is a prime motivation of religious man.)

Narratives interfere with our judgement of odds. Studies have shown that if people are asked to judge the likelihood of two events  - one presented in an abstract manner and the other in the context of a story, we will most often pick the event described in a narrative.   

Types of Thinking

Citing a group called The Society of Judgement and Decision Making, Taleb notes two main types of thinking:

The brain in hardwired to do System 1 type of processing. It happens in the limbic region of the brain.

Avoiding Narrative Fallacies

Although we can't avoid being drawn to narratives (that is part of what it means to be human), we can avoid narrative fallacies by...