Never Let The Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” my girlfriend says in front of a group of friends and me, in response to my questioning the validity of the comment she just made.

“Did you just make that quote up?” I ask, as she subsequently affirms that she did.

Did she just double down?

Only weeks later, with the assistance of Google, do I learn that the quote is actually attributable to a little-known writer named MARK TWAIN.

At least she practices what she preaches.

The world talks a lot about truth in this era of Trumpian politics.

Even before the Trump era, most politicians have been successful in not letting the truth get in the way — consistently spinning stories, twisting data and perhaps even outright lying to maintain on-brand political narratives with their respective bases.

The issue of truth and narrative arguably came to its apex just a few short months ago during Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process for the Supreme Court of the United States.

At question was whether or not Kavanaugh sexually assaulted his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and who was telling the truth.

Some supporters on each side took a hardline stance, arguing that the other is lying. Others argued that Kavanaugh may have sexually assaulted Blasey Ford, yet is truthful in his denial, and doesn’t believe he did so. Whereas others similarly argued that Blasey Ford was likely sexually assaulted, yet is incorrect in her attribution of the crime to Kavanaugh.

Naturally, America took sides, with conservatives generally finding Kavanaugh more believable, and liberals finding Blasey Ford more believable.

So, who was telling the truth?

Mark Twain said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” — we already don’t.

A flashbulb memory is a detailed, vivid snapshot of a spectacular event in our life — public events such as 9/11 or Trump’s election night, or personal events such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one.

Everyone who is old enough remembers — I certainly do — where they were when they first learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Given the significance of the event, we hold with a high degree of certainty our recollection of that day’s events.

However, memory is fallible, and studies show we’re wrong.

A flashbulb study of 9/11 conducted by William Hurst and Elizabeth Phelps showed that 60% of respondents’ answers changed overtime, when questioned about the events of the morning of 9/11 over the course of ten years, despite their high degree of certainty about their recollection.

It is certainly possible — if not plausible — for both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh to have misrecalled memories about the event in question.

But that also doesn’t mean they’re lying. The human memory is fallible.

So, who do we believe?

Our interpretation of the truth is dependent not upon the stories others tell, but upon the stories we tell ourselves.

While our brains struggle to accurately recall even significant events, they also fall victim to several biases that allow us to interpret outside information incorrectly.

A study from Vladimíra Čavojová last year showed the power of my-side bias — which demonstrated that participants’ existing biases on [insert controversial topic] interfered with their logical reasoning abilities.

Further, a second study, by Anat Maril, showed that we automatically process opinions we agree with as if they are facts.

And a third, from Dan Kahan, also showed that those who are trained to assess data aren’t necessarily better at rationally assessing data than those without a mathematical background. In other words — increased literacy doesn’t necessarily make us better at overcoming our biases.

In all cases, it doesn’t really matter what stories people are telling us, or the facts being used to corroborate the stories.

The stories we tell ourselves — the biases we have, or the things we believe to be true — are what compel us to believe either Kavanaugh or Blasey Ford.

On the one hand, and in an increasingly polarized world, this is disturbing.

On the other, perhaps this evidence represents personal growth opportunities.

What are the stories we tell ourselves?

What if we told ourselves different stories — would they come true?

This is a key tenet of the growth mindset— the idea that our intelligence and skills can be developed and are not fixed.

If we tell ourselves that we’re not smart, that story becomes true. Whereas, if we tell ourselves that we can get smarter with practice and effort, naturally we find greater achievement through that story.

Poor test scores, at present, shouldn’t get in the way of a good story about achievement.

So, if we live in a world where the truth doesn’t get in the way of a good story, then we better tell (ourselves) some great stories.


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