Narrative Fallacy Impairs Our Ability to See Things Just Happen

Everybody loves a good story.  So much so that we create them.

Narrative fallacy happens when people fit a sequence of happenings into a storyline.

We do this all the time!

The media is drunk with narrative fallacy in its stories but we create stories too.  About how we overcame odds.  About how everyone is against us.  About how our son is a hero.  About how we’re riddled with bad luck.

Did we really overcome the odds?

Is everyone really against us?

Is our son actually a hero?

Are we really riddled with bad luck?

Things Just Happen

The more I observe, the more convinced I am that things just happen.  Everyday things fall into place for very straightforward, logical reasons.

We may not be able to identify or understand those reasons but that doesn’t mean they aren’t driving the results we witness.


The best example I can think of is sports.  Look at the Patriots-Seahawks Superbowl game.  The outcome of that game could have gone either way in the final minute yet it defined how many think about the players and teams.

For example, Tom Brady is said to have solidified his legacy.  Tom Brady wasn’t on the field of play when the outcome hung in the balance.  Shouldn’t his legacy have been solidified either way?

Or was he going to be not as good because Jermaine Kearse caught a 33 yard pass on his back?  Or is he now a true legend because Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson on the goal line?

It was an entertaining game that could have easily gone either way.  A few unlikely plays at the end determined the winner.


My favorite show is Shark Tank.  An interesting subplot to the show is how different entrepreneurs deal with their business being scrutinized.

The worst will turn into an emotional wreck, crying that they’ve put everything they’ve had into the business and that they’ve tried their hardest to make everything work.

But that’s working along the narrative that trying your hardest (or what you think is your hardest) equates to success.  We’re taught that in the movies: Pour your “heart and soul” into something and you’ll be a success.

Doesn’t work like that.  Pour your heart and soul into making a commercially viable product, market it well, and then maybe you’ll be a success.


Sometimes there really is a story to tell.  Sometimes a sequence of events really does create a movie-esque narrative.  But I think that’s much more rare than we think.

With our malleable minds, we have to be careful not to construct a narrative and then fit pieces to fit it.

Many times things just happen; they just play out and there’s no storybook flow – just a bunch of logical happenings as a consequence of a series of actions.

Narrative Placebo Effect

While life isn’t nearly the movie – good or bad – we paint in our minds, I will say this for narratives: They can influence the mind to such a degree that the mind will compel action to achieve the contrived result.

For example, let’s say I believe I’m a rags to riches story in the making.  I make my upbringing more difficult than it was.  I constantly trumpet “obstacles” I’ve overcome – no matter how regular or ordinary they are.  And now I believe that all that’s left is for me to become a millionaire.

I might just do it.  Not because it was the probable consequence of my self-created story but because I believed it so much that I took the normal actions to make it happen.

In this instance, the mind has become so convinced of the narrative that it makes it happen – at least the end result – because it believes it to be how things are supposed to play out.

Reconciling Failed Narratives

Of course, there can be devastating mental consequences when reality slams the door on our (usually good) movie and we can no longer justify extending the final scene.  I suspect this happens more frequently than we realize, leaving people tagged with internal conflict until they finally deal with it or die.

Flattening Things

I like to flatten things. That is deflate things of emotion and bias as much as I possibly can and just look at them for what they are. Here’s a graphic to help illustrate:

flatten things

When I undergo this mental process, I try to remove myself and others from the picture.

I don’t matter. My opinion doesn’t matter. What I want doesn’t matter. What I was told doesn’t matter. What I want to believe doesn’t matter.

Instead of any of that, I examine something or someone for what I can see and reasonably deduce. It’s the same as what the Sharks do with entrepreneur pitches.

When you flatten something, you deaden the emotion to a minimum. You can focus on what’s really there. Whether there is a narrative or one has been created, it’s easy to tell.

Credit: Nassim Nicholas Taleb is widely known for detailing the concept of narrative fallacy in his book, [easyazon_link asin=”081297381X” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”krisr-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]The Black Swan[/easyazon_link].

Taleb’s definition:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Here’s a great blog post on narrative fallacy by Ryan Holiday.