The Trouble With Stories

image from Justin Bale’s OWS archive 

 We hold stories dear to our heart. Some even believe “stories are all we are“. I love stories. I’ve encouraged groups doing strategic planning — looking for the best way forward — to start with ‘future state’ stories that describe a day in their lives once the group’s goals have been achieved. I’ve learned that telling stories is the best way to hold an audience and help them remember your message. And that they’re subversive — you can get people to think about a point of view they would normally balk about considering by couching it in a story. And that if a story is sufficiently compelling, it really doesn’t even matter if it’s true. We want to believe. Make-believe. Make us believe by telling us a story.

So what’s with the title of this article? What could I possibly have against stories?

The trouble with stories is that they make us believe what’s not true.

I wrote a rant against stories five years ago, in which I said:

Stories are addictive. They oversimplify complexity to the point we become complacent, that we think we know what is really happening and that all the alternatives have been identified and considered. Stories are sedative: We tell our children “bedtime stories” to lull them to sleep. Stories are manipulative, readily subject to spin, especially on complex subjects about which there can never be absolute or certain knowledge. And they are subject to censorship and the crime of non-reporting, which the mainstream media do constantly. Stories give us false hope. Many live their lives dreaming of what might be instead of realizing what is. Stories lead us to live inside our heads instead of in the real world. Stories are excuses for inaction: When we get worked up about a story, we can mistake that for actually doing something about it. And stories are only stories. The true horrors are not just stories. Just as a map is not the territory, a story is not the thing that the story is about.

At that time, I also described two “laws” of human cognition and behaviour that, I said, conspire to make stories so powerful, and so dangerous:

  • Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
  • George Lakoff’s Law of Frames: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

That article was criticized by those who thought stories to be so essential to human nature, that to argue against their use was to deny who we really are. At that time my principal argument against stories was that we substitute reading them and telling them for meaningful action to deal with the real issues the stories are about. And we do. But since then I’ve become more sanguine about what we can really do about these issues. My further study of complexity has led me to believe that it’s too late to change the massive, global, evolved systems that are destroying our world, if it were ever possible at all.

So my problem with stories, now, is not that they’re unactionable, but that they’re untrue, and our belief in them as being true causes us to behave in dysfunctional ways.

Most of the harm of stories stems from their deliberate (and necessary, for brevity) simplification (sometimes to an extreme degree) of a complex situation, a situation rooted in complex systems. Here’s what I’ve learned about complex systems:

  • They are not changed by heroic action; nor are they controlled by a conspiracy of ‘evil’ people. They are the way they are for a reason, and they have evolved over a period of time, due to the combined influence of a nearly infinite number of people, actions and variables, to be the way they are. Because they contain a mix of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, they tend to remain in stasis and resist change, but no one is in control of them.
  • Likewise, complex systems cannot simply be replaced by better-designed systems, despite what Bucky Fuller said. Systems evolve and systems collapse, and when they collapse new systems (possibly but not likely ‘better’) replace them, piecemeal, one step at a time. There is no ‘progress’, there is just evolution, punctured equilibrium, with stasis then shift then a rebalancing and a new stasis, and, unless the system is tiny and local and autonomous, no one is in control of it, no one ‘designs’ it. Around and around, that’s the way things go in evolution. Trial and error, a slightly better fit for an ever-changing situation. Not a better system, just a slightly better fit for the situation as it has evolved.
  • The ‘interventions’ in large complex systems that do work — in fact, without them, many complex systems would collapse much more quickly — are workarounds. All large corporations and other bureaucracies accomplish most of what they do by virtue of workarounds instituted by people on the front lines — workarounds that often circumvent and even violate official ‘policy’ but are the only way to get what is needed actually done. The heads of the smartest large organizations realize this and don’t try to stifle workarounds, and may even quietly reward them.

Stories, in short, are fictions, deceptions, simplifications, inventions. They are propaganda, even though they may be well-intentioned. They are not true. They may be useful, for teaching, for persuading, for brainwashing. But they are not true. The truth is complex, and no story can tell it.

The stories in your daily news, the biographies you read, the ‘self-help’ books with stories of transformation, the case studies you take up in business school, the myths and fables you grew up with, the war stories, success stories, creation stories, the epic novels and plays and films of all genres, and even documentaries — all stories, convenient, arousing, manipulating, entertaining, distorting, oversimplifying fictions, packaged and sold to us avid (or reluctant) consumers. We want to believe it’s simple, that it can be fully understood, that there’s a simple answer, and we loathe complexity because it won’t give us simple ‘truths’. But if it’s about organisms or people or societies or ecologies, or even scientific phenomena (all complex systems), it’s never simple.

Look at the elements of archetypal stories: They have a sympathetic protagonist, a struggle against a heinous unredeemable enemy (which may be human, or not, and may be metaphorical, or even within the protagonist), a ‘turning point’, and a resolution, redemption, or salvation — a great and victorious change. None of these things is real — reality is always far more complex than this. Consider the situation in Syria, for example. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and how should we intervene? Think you know? Not so fast. Here’s just a teaser (courtesy of the Vlog brothers) on how complex the situation there really is, and there is no intervention that is likely to help the situation more than it worsens it. (In fact, it’s even more complex than the Vlog brothers portray it.) And the situation in Ukraine is even more complex than that.

Let’s consider some of the stories that progressives love to tell: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” story. The invention of the Internet. The abolition of slavery and forced segregation. The defeat of Nazism and the fall of  the Soviet (and other tyrannical) empires. The extension of rights to women, gays and minorities. The ending of the Vietnam War. We tell these stories, with the best of intentions, as if they were true.

But as tempting as it may be to see a powerful cause-and-effect in a few actions by one or a few people, the sheer complexity of these systems is such that change, which in history books is written by the victors who always overstate their successes and omit their failures, occurs slowly and unpredictably as the result of a million factors, most of them uncontrollable. Social change occurs when the majority are fed up with the status quo. Each new generation is less attached to that status quo, and hence more open to changes, some of which are for the better, and some of which are for the worse. And all inventions are built, as they say, on the shoulders of giants. The Internet was inevitable once certain prerequisite technologies had been invented or evolved (many of which were invented for completely unrelated reasons), and it was impossible without those prerequisites. A number of those prerequisite technologies were, no doubt, invented for military ends.

Of course, you can change people’s minds about issues you care about (most effectively by telling them stories). But often they will change them back again. As Dennett and Lakoff say, changing the worldview that underlies someone’s beliefs is something very different. It’s a slow and unreliable process. And even then there’s the additional step of actually getting them to act on that changed worldview. And that action, if it happens, is only one a million variables affecting the system, most of which have evolved to keep the system in stasis as long as possible.

We want to believe that individual conviction and effort can make a difference. And of course, at the local level it can. But trying to change large, complex systems quickly (in less than a generation) is like trying to get the waves of the sea to part. And even when these systems collapse, as all systems do, we can’t expect to be able to impose, on any significant scale, a new ideal ‘designed’ system on the ensuing chaos that will work. Lenin tried that.

Instead, what we can do is find workarounds that make things at the immediate level where we do have some control, work a bit better. And if we build strong connections and a sense of local community, we can co-develop and share those workarounds for the benefit of others. Then, as the current economic and political systems continue to collapse, we will have the rudiments of new systems that can gradually replace them. This is already happening in different ways in many places.

And we can, instead of trying to change teetering, large, complex systems, adapt to the realities of these systems by learning new competencies and capacities that will enable us to thrive as these systems collapse, to starve them to the extent they’re destructive, and to stay out of their way.

And, instead of dwelling on the stories we tell about the past and the future, and about ourselves and the world, we can simply be present, attentive to what is and can be done, right here, right now.

This is how wild creatures deal with complex systems (such as their ecosystems, and human systems that intervene in their habitat). They work around, they adapt, they learn, and they live in the moment. They have no need for stories.

Such mundane, local work is not, of course, the stuff of great stories. There are no heroes, no enemies vanquished, no great victories after epic struggle, no dramatic turning points, no great redemption or salvation. There are no inspiring leaders, taking us valiantly forward. There is no great change. No ‘progress’.

I love stories. They’re a great way to remember things, and to learn simple things, and to imagine possibilities, and to entertain each other. But we should be careful not to believe them, not to base our beliefs or actions on them, and not to hope (or fear) they will ‘come true’. They aren’t true. Not any of them.

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9 Responses to The Trouble With Stories

  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Dave,

    I agree that believing that are stories are “true” in an absolute sense is counterproductive, indeed often dangerous. But I see them in a way that you don’t really mention in this post; as tools for communication, for putting forth points of view. I’ve written elsewhere ( that we are the stories we tell ourselves. Telling our stories to others is perhaps our most powerful tool for sharing the frames that shape who we are in the moment of telling. Stories are thus much more than “a great way to remember things, and to learn simple things, and to imagine possibilities, and to entertain each other.” They are “true” in the moment of telling as an attempt to communicate something deep. They are not, as you point out, “true” in any fundamental sense, but they remain one of the most useful tools we (and perhaps animals too; who knows?) have developed to share our current reality.

  2. There are a lot of beautiful fictions out there, and this post is one of them. “Lakoff’s Law of Frames,” check, and there’s a prescriptive frame around this story that’s worth more than the painting. Clearly this is an essay, a deliberate attempt to install a yummy idea in the reader’s head: Here’s the problem, here’s the solution. “My story is, ‘Stories are evil. Put them in their proper perspective, and these are the benefits we’ll get.'” The idea wins the day — gee, what does that remind me of? I fully endorse the language about “evil people,” what I call the Devil Theory (“We suffer because the one percent wants us to suffer! They want a permanent global underclass, that’s why all this stuff is happening!”), but one of the central features of the Devil Theory is the prescriptive frame: “The orcs are evil, defeat them and Middle Earth will once again be a top tourist destination.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much digital ink on the topic of story without someone mentioning the work of James G. Frazer, Jesse L. Weston, Joseph Campbell and all them hifalutin Greeks. So I’ll just jump in here on their behalf and say that stories are important to people, that they pass on the values of the tribe to the next generation, and provide a means for people mired in the complexity of this moment to have their problems vicariously solved and their burdens lifted, if only for a moment. Carl Jung wrote that the psychic hygiene and overall wellness of the people in his care was better if they held some transcendent belief, which is why a lot people in the psychotherapy biz say Jung pursued Gnosticism. And if there’s a grander, goofier story than The God Thing, I haven’t heard of it. And as for the coda to this guy’s post — “I love stories…They aren’t true. Not any of them.” — I’ll go you one better: “Nothing is true. Not even that.” — Samuel Beckett

  3. mike daniel says:

    I’ve been reading your blogs for a while and it seems to me that you are in a full blown existential crisis. I see a sifting of your own stories right now landing on the island story of mind and the illusions of mind yet finding no clear way through and ending in a kind of
    truth through negation. Stories help people organize their internal world. Yes they can be susceptible to other stories intended to manipulate us, eg Edward Bernays and the invisible wires of control. Still if one goes through a descent into one’s depths towards soul as Jung did (RedBook) and follow our dreams which are potentially Nature/God speaking to us avoiding ego interpretation then we come to a place where imagination holds sway. Here we have arrived at the creative center where new life comes from. Each rock, amoeba, human, and so on has a unique gift to contribute to the world. This is how we create new futures and move through complexity, not through mind but with imagination, connected to heart and soul. There are no immediate answers to the world’s deepest problems in this path just new potentialities. Given our egos (and our wounded parts) desire to know in order to control the future the route I have described creates fear because it seems to have no ground to it so we avoid it. (Investigate Animas Valley Institute’s work as an example as a way in to this process). I feel you are projecting this fear on to stories and not recognizing it as such.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. I know it’s heresy to dis stories, and I tried to be balanced in this article by saying that stories do have enormous value. But I’m really concerned that we get into a lot of trouble by mistaking the map for the territory — taking the story as ‘true’ when it cannot hope to embrace the full complexity of any issue. I think this very human tendency to want to simplify has gotten us into a great deal of difficulty, and if we’re going to cope well with the very complex challenges we’re going to face in the coming decades, we’re going to have to learn to embrace complexity and constantly challenge the veracity of anything that seems too black-and-white.

    I really wasn’t being facetious when I said I love stories even though they’re not ‘true’ (i.e. they’re oversimplifications). Great for learning, very entertaining, useful in thinking about possibilities. But we are, and must be, much more than our stories.

  5. I may be of a different viewpoint to many readers here, but: wow – what a liberating read!


    – My partner is just reading “Who Wrote the New Testament”, by Burton L. Mack, and keeps rushing into the room to tell me snippets about how the New Testament was written as a kind of constitution for a New World Order that got (gradually) adopted at the nexus of social formation and myth-making at a crisis point in our history (obviously crisis points are more periods than they are points…). We’ve been having some interesting conversations about whether myth is the way to go, seeing as human civilization has been fractalling around it for millenia and still ain’t got ‘the answer’ (note: I do not believe in ‘the answer’; just a lot of people seem to want to).

    – Apparently the New Testament was never meant to be a historical account. It’s just been construed that way more recently. Originally, apparently, it was more of a reconstruction of the constitution (Old Testament) of the ‘movement’, based in present realities of the time, carried out as Jews became dissatisfied with the way things were going. It couldn’t possibly stand the test of time, just as mythologies before it did not. Simply put, it was realised that a new story was needed (like many people are saying now, as though it were the first time such words were uttered…). Here is a piece on stories I wrote about a year and a half ago, whose conclusions I am now seriously beginning to question: I still agree that honesty needs to be at the core, however, but I am reconsidering the value of packaging it in myth. I don’t even know if it’s possible to deliver it without such packaging, however.

    – I’ve been questioning the value of stories for a while now, as I’ve come to the conclusion that about 90% of what one says is misunderstood or misrepresented due to already present worldviews and biases in one’s audience. Over time this figure increases to almost 100%, as much gets lost in translation as circumstances change, and interpretations and representations become based in present realities, not in those of the days when the stories were written. We really cannot expect our stories to stand the test of time, and we run the risk of allegories being taken literally, and key points being glossed over entirely. I am coming to think that stories have their place in a particular space and time, but not really beyond that. Having said that, stories from any given time can tell us a lot about what worldviews and ideologies existed at the time, particularly which ones were dominant and powerful. They can also inform us of what we need to know in order to avoid re-inventing the wheel, although so many of us want to do that anyway, and insist that what we are doing is new (just as we never really listened to our parents and repeated their mistakes…).

    – The comment on Dave’s existential crisis made me chuckle. I think I’m in one of those (too). My partner and I watched “I Heart Huckabees” over dinner this evening, as it felt fitting for the end of a week that’s seen me go down with the Mother of all Migraines (in duration, not intensity), and such crappy experiences always make me question what I’m doing with my life – through the grogginess that seems a more fitting lens for where I’m actually at.

    – I think you’re spot on about mistaking the map for the territory, and these are words I’ve been fumbling for for a while. Today was the perfect time to read them :-)

    Of course – and I have to mention this in the context of being a former language teacher and teacher of critical thinking – I love stories (I love language/rhetoric in general) too, for their power, potential, and ability to open up conceptual spaces. I am also wary of their use in the hands of those who wish to exert control, and in the minds of those who do not question. It was the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago – particularly the aspect of language development – that enabled human societies to organize in large numbers and in flexible terms. It was our stories, therefore, that led us to wage wars, conquer lands, and establish tyrannies, and build ideologies. Survival was something we managed quite nicely long before the cognitive revolution, although clearly there must have been some adaptive evolutionary function, as the path of least resistance is our default – i.e. we would not have developed as we have were it not of greater use than its alternative/s.

    We must never forget that language is purely abstract, and that, as such, it can never convey reality. It is a double-edged sword, and one that is rarely used responsibly or with integrity. Much as we might try to tell the perfect story, its perfection is limited by the comprehension of our audience. Sometimes I think we’d be better off in silence, which is a big admission of existential valuelessness for a writer and language teacher!

  6. I know the dilemma, and personally the way I reconcile it is distinguishing between fact and truth. Stories are truths, not necessarily facts. The trouble with facts is that they are complex, chaotic and contradictory. The trouble with truths is that they oversimplify. But good truths can help us to plot courses through the mess of facts…

  7. Earl Mardle says:

    The level of uncertainty that you propose is intolerable for most people. I have always found it refreshing and exciting but almost everyone else finds it terrifying. What it comes down to is that we have no choice but to make choices, plans, proposals about the future based on insanely inadequate information with absolutely no prospect that the desired outcome will occur. That kind of cognitive load causes insanity.

    Stories provide us with the psychological cover, and some kind of decision-making matrix, that rescues us from the paralysis of the centipede, unable to put even one foot ahead of another when the number of factors exceeds about 4.

    In a relatively stable system, there will be a number of standard stories that we can use to guide decisions with some reasonable prospect that the outcomes will be an approximation to success. However, when the overarching system is breaking down, one by one the stories that were reasonable to tell become more and more evidently absurd and we are increasingly left to face the abyss alone.

    That is when we start to hear the stories that are magical where we are saved from the unfathomable by the ineffable. The dangers are every bit as great but they help to prevent millions of people being exposed to the chaos behind the facade and going insane at the same time; they are a sedative for the lambs on the way to the slaughter.

    As for your supposed existential crisis Dave, of course, every life is lived in the cusp of existential crisis, we can die at any moment, from any cause, from bad diet to choosing the wrong airline for that trip to China. Whether apocryphal or not, the story of the American Indian who began his day by greeting the sun and exclaiming that it was a good day to die, at least tried to expose that crisis and enable the speaker to carry on in the face of its being true on some unknowable day.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks K, I think you put it better than I did. Earl, it is interesting how we love to simplify, to find and see patterns even when there are none, to make simple ‘sense’ of complex things. This propensity must have had some evolutionary survival value, though, or I doubt it would have endured so well as ‘human nature’. Our loathing for complexity, uncertainty, uncontrollability and unpredictability is endlessly fascinating. And possibly lethal.

  9. John Graham says:

    Dave, I wonder if you picked up on Dmitry Orlov’s link to ( – he pointed more specifically to the Big Little Idea Called Illegibility).
    Reading that blog has me saying “bullshit” quite a lot.

    The truth about stories is that they’re bullshit. And “The Truth About Stories” is bullshit. I think Thomas King said as much in his final chapter.
    Being bullshit may not be a bad thing, depending on your definition ( ). (I loved Thomas King’s book)

    One thing you seem to do in this post – standard practice perhaps in the fashionable orthodoxy you think you’re committing heresy against (;D) – is lumping everything together and calling it story, for rhetorical effect.

    Articles purporting to be the news, fiction that tells you it’s a story, unconscious cognitive framing, internal chatter/discursive thought, campfire stories and yarns – these have commonalities, but how useful is it to simplify by calling it all”Story”?. It just sounds good. (of course calling everything ‘bullshit’ is not that different)

    Last point – I’m finding the multiplicity of stories around Ukraine liberating. Every time a mental model of the situation starts to ‘make sense’ to me, I read something else that brings it into question. I actually get the urge to find out more about the situation.
    So there’s another factor here beyond “stories make us believe that they’re true” – and I guess that brings us to questions of agency, which it’s hard not to get stuck in an impasse with. “Stories don’t *make* us do anything”, is what I want to contradict with, but that gets us nowhere. What I’m after is a phenomenological description of what stories do.

    The ‘another factor’ I just referred to is, I suppose, the willingness to think. But if thinking is illusory or just “story”, and if ‘will’ is nothing but the delusion of too many heroic narratives, then we’re stuck. (luckily they’re not ;) )

    “Our loathing for complexity, uncertainty, uncontrollability and unpredictability” is *almost* endlessly fascinating. But not quite. Abe Lincoln: “We must disenthrall ourselves”.
    I’m doing a basic trade skills course at the moment, taking apart engines and putting them back together. Last thing I thought I’d ever do. For all my bullshit reading, I’m learning to think, and do, and – as the phenomenologists unexpectedly said was the point of their work – to care.

    Final last point, another link I don’t know if you got (via Ran Prieur)

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