The Narrative Fallacy - Turning paranormal investigations into ghost stories?

9th August 2020. Reading Time: 6 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 1481 page views. 0 comments.

The narrative fallacy leads us to see events as stories. Does our brain's need to recap things as stories to understand them mean we are not seeing things as they really happened?

Investigating the paranormal is exciting.  While there can be a lot of waiting around, sometimes that one thing happens that truely intrigues you and leads you to more questions than you have answers.  Of course, we all interpret things differently which in a lot of ways is a good thing.  It is good because it means by working together we have a range of different perspectives to fall back on and help further our research.  It can also be our downfall because it is difficult to determine what something is when it is so ambiguous.  Our different interpretations mean that it makes it harder to find a definite answer.  The reason we all think and react so differently to things comes down to what is called cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is an error in the way that we think.  It means we are not necessarily thinking with a 'clear mind'.  Our experiences, our beliefs, and our intentions all influence the way we think, the way we make decisions, and the way we interpret our surroundings.  Just the fact that we believe in the paranormal makes us bias.  It means we are more prone to 'self-fulfilling prophecy' where our brain is likely to interpret certain things to be paranormal when they are not.  We go in looking for the paranormal and our 'brain' makes us find it even if it is not really there.  At the other end, a full skeptic is also biased and will tend to look for a rational explanation discounting any sort of ambiguous event without even looking into the possibility it could be something we don't quite understand.  The narrative fallacy is one of these cognitive bias'.

The Narrative Fallacy

We know from our understanding of things like pareidolia, that our brain likes to process information a certain way.  It looks for patterns.  If it cannot detect a pattern, it is when we start seeing or hearing things that aren't there just to make sense of what is happening.  It is why we see a face in the clouds, our brain has to make sense and put it in something we will recognize or understand.  The same occurs when we are processing information about the daily world.  Our brain is constantly undergoing sensory overload.  In order to be able to distinguish one thing from another and to be able to process this information, it needs to put things into order.  

Order among chaos

I feel this famous saying perfectly sums up what our brain is trying to do.  It is putting order to the sensory chaos around us.  It is one of the fundamental 'cogs in the wheel', that help us to understand the world around us.  It implements a system of cause and effect.  Without this system, we would walk around oblivious to the world around us.  Because of this cause and effect, there is also an emotional element.  If someone is upset with us, we need to know why.  If someone is chosen for a job instead of us, we want to know why.  We have to apply a reason to literally every single thing that happens.  Even something as simple as a pen falling to the ground, there has to be a reason why (such as it rolled off the table or you dropped it).

We as humans also tend to follow a certain narrative.  For example with an actor that suddenly becomes famous, there is an emphasis on their 'rags to riches' story about how they moved from a small town and paid their dues, sleeping on a friend's couch before getting their 'big break'.  This is playing into our narrative fallacy because there is that cause and effect and it plays into a story we can relate to.  We know what it is like to work hard and pay your dues.  We are more likely to connect to that story as opposed to a narrative saying they were the best on the day.  

“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.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

The Narrative Fallacy and the paranormal

When I read about the narrative fallacy, there was one particular narrative that came to mind.  It was that of ghost stories.  When you look at the way our brain processes information it puts things into patterns.  We know from the above that it has to put them in order and essentially explain everything.  The question becomes, are we unknowingly creating our own ghost stories through the narrative fallacy?

If we are on an investigation for example, if a door closes, the narrative fallacy tells us we need an explanation of why.  We are either going to think it is a spirit closing the door or we will think it is the wind.  This is where our cognitive bias comes in.  Our belief systems influence the way we make decisions and react to certain situations.  This remains true with the narrative fallacy as well.  Our belief system could unknowingly be writing our narrative without us realizing it.  A paranormal investigation suddenly becomes a ghost story.

Think about after an investigation when you talk to someone about something you have experienced.  You put the events in the order they happened.  You have to go through the process of cause and effect.  You end up delivering the information in a story.  The way your story has been weaved relies on not only your memory but your interpretation of what happened.  Your interpretation is influenced by what you believe.  If you are more on the skeptical side, the story is more likely to be something along the lines of "I heard a bang and turned around.  It must have been the wind".  A person who more strongly believes in the paranormal could say something along the lines of "I was startled by a bang and the door closed.  Something didn't want us to go in that room".  Here you have the same event with two completely different narratives.  The narrative of the cause and effect you come up with is influenced by your belief system.

Applying critical thinking

The most effective way to balance out any cognitive bias is to apply critical thinking.  Even just being aware of your own bias is a start.  Being aware of this narrative fallacy and cause and effect means we can try to proactively be in control of the narrative.  

Critical thinking can help us explain a lot of paranormal phenomena, but when applied properly, it can also make us rethink the way we explain this phenomenon.  Maybe we are jumping to the 'that's not paranormal' conclusion too quickly.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Whether or not we have that proof we don't know, but the best way to help us find out is to educate ourselves with as much knowledge as possible.  You will be amazed at how much it changes your approach to paranormal investigating.  Knowledge doesn't 'ruin' the way you view the paranormal.  It changes it, and you will end up with even more questions than answers.  

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