Back to all posts

09/18/18

Narrative Bias: Why The Stories We Tell Ourselves Hold Us Back

In Ypsilanti, Michigan there are three men that live together, eat together, and hang out together. These three guys go about their daily lives in relative peace and quiet, enjoying each others company. They’re entirely normal, healthy, and capable individuals in every way, except for the minor fact that they live in a mental institution.

Why do these three men live in a mental institution? Each guy is thoroughly convinced he is Jesus Christ.

That itself is crazy, but it’s not anything new. People show up claiming to be God all over the world every day. What’s crazy is that each of the three Christ’s can never be convinced that he is the fake Jesus and that one of the other men might be the real Jesus Christ.

Each man tells a different story about his Jesus-hood that, logically, gets torn apart. Psychiatrists aren’t the ones tearing apart the arguments, though. The other Christ’s destroy each other’s argument and poke holes in the shoddy logic. All the time.

Each Christ’s story constantly evolves to adapt to the holes being poked in it by the other Christ’s. Not a single one of the three Jesus-figures ever admits to being wrong. They keep telling the story, the story of why they are the one, true God.

These men experience strong narrative bias. You and I have the exact same problem.

Narrative is everything.

Our ability to explain life through narrative has evolved into a sophisticated process that helps us continually make sense of the world around us. It’s evolved so much that we don’t recognize it anymore, and along the way we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we’re rational beings capable of logical, rational thought.

There is no greater example of this than in health and fitness.

Every single day millions of people fail at their diet. Whether it be a falling off the diet wagon because “they didn’t have the time to prep”, “Couldn’t quite get it down.” or any myriad of reasons. When this happens to us, we find ways to weave this into our personal narrative. We tell ourselves how much we have going on, and why we can’t make it into the gym. Write the story around our failure to include it as a piece of us.

Sound familiar?

The funny thing is, we’re very good at pointing out this shortcoming in other people, just terrible at it when it comes to ourselves. Take the diet example. Maybe it wasn’t you that failed on your diet, but your friend that you see when you take the kids to practice each week. And maybe she told you about how she tried this diet, and she just couldn’t make it work because she had this going on, and that thing that came up, and this obligation to attend to.

How would you handle that? Part of you might be a sympathetic and listening ear, sure. Most of us manage to do that. But another part of us manages to think about how those are really just excuses. How that if it were really a priority for that friend, she would’ve made the time and put in the effort.

Which, not coincidentally, is the same role that a Coach tends to serve. One way to think about what your Coach is there for is to help you continually get a bit closer to reality – to help you see through the stories and layers of perception that we add into each and every decision. A Coach helps you strip away all of that and see each decision for what it really is.

So, why can’t we do this to ourselves?

This is where the three Christ’s reappear to learn us a thing or two. Your brain is tricking you with narrative bias. It’s an evolutionary trait that sets us apart from other animals. When given the choice, your brain prefers to give and receive info in the form of a narrative.

The human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Compare that to a cat, the most evil creature in the animal kingdom, which only has 300 million neurons. A ton of information is flooding the brain at any given moment. With all that info, the brain has to organize it somehow. It does so in story form.

Stories are how we make sense of the world.

When was the last time you set a diet goal for yourself and failed miserably? What was the story you told yourself to justify it? You were busy? Or there was a lot going on in life?

What about a friend of yours that set a similar goal and failed? They probably told themselves a similar story, but you saw right through it of course. You saw the excuses they made, the time they wasted, and all the mistakes they made.

Or, put another way from the researcher behind the men of Ypsilanti, Milton Rokeach, adds: 

“You seem to be able to see through the lies and rationalizations of other people.”

So how do we start to get better at seeing through our own stories we tell ourselves?

Without a doubt, one of the quickest ways you can start cutting through the narrative you weave for yourself is to start keeping a running log of your behavior. This is something we’ve talked about a lot on the blog, and for good reason. Keeping an accurate food log works, if for no other reason, than it helps us to evaluate where people are falling off and what we need to do to address that.

But keeping that for yourself helps you do that for yourself. It gives you the tools to Coach yourself whenever you can’t quite figure out what is happening because you now have a running history to look back on. Not a fictionalized account that you’re telling yourself is what really happened.

But it doesn’t even have to be just tracking your food.

My training log is a pen and paper notebook. I write down every single workout in this notebook. It’s got a pirate swinging a sword, riding a unicorn, and yelling, “BELIEVE!”. That notebook is what helps me look back and see why I may not be making progress like I want. Or, conversely, why I am making progress – which tells me what I should keep on doing.

Similarly, I’ve adopted a practice from Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, in writing down the events and feelings of my day as I’m winding down for the night. The whole goal being nothing more than to put the day up for review and compare what I actually got done compared to what I wanted to get done. There’s no hiding from that, and I can work to weave why I didn’t get something done into my personal narrative. But it doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t get done, and that can be a valuable reminder.

Above all, I think what’s important to remember here is that stories are valuable. They’re deeply important in both how we make sense of the world and how we navigate our way towards any one goal we might have. Including a weight loss goal.

So if you’ve been someone who has wanted to work at a diet goal of some sort, start checking your narrative bias at the door by logging your food. Look at that food log as a new tool. A tool specifically designed to help you figure out if the story you’re telling yourself is fact or fiction.

 

Tanner Baze
Director of Content