Reflections on the Role of StoryTelling in A Person's Life with Examples Culled from Popular Culture and Personal Incidents as Experienced by a Twentieth-Century-Born Individual

Nature versus Nurture
I was going for a nineteenth-century title.

I usually prefer to pontificate in the context of pop culture. But I am getting ready to teach an Interpersonal Communications course (which I've taught before). Since I in no way consider myself an expert communicator, I usually focus on either discussing more philosophical questions (like in this post) or hammering home the course's main point: Communication is complicated! Be kind!

Kate's Theory about Stories and the Self

In my Interpersonal Communications class, we discuss what goes into creating personality. Fifty years ago, nurture was the rage (Freud, post-Freud); about 10 years ago, nature was the rage (the latter has morphed lately into a more complex view that includes evolutionary biology/anthropology, not merely genes).

My view, the older and older I get, is that it comes down to the stories people decide to tell themselves about themselves (from the available material)--that to a large extent, Freud was wrong: it isn't the unconscious that influences the self; it is the created self that influences the self.

The story of the self is created in three ways: (1) cherry-picking evidence; (2) making comparisons; (3) constructing interpretations.

(1) Cherry-picking evidence

Cherry-picking evidence sounds awful, but it is in fact necessary and natural to human survival. We are inundated with experiences, flooded with sensory information, overwhelmed with faces, names, locations, memories, and choices. Brain Games and other lite-anthropology fare point out that humans have a remarkable ability to shut out information. This is what makes magic tricks (and pick-pocketing) possible. It is also what makes survival possible. Since we can't download "it" all, we're better off ignoring most of it.

Of course, there are negative side-effects, like "missing" vehicles we are not used to seeing in traffic (drivers literally don't see atypical vehicles). Often the eye as well as the mind has to be retrained.

Selecting or cherry-picking memories can also have negative side-effects. In one House episode, House "cures" a woman who has a photographic memory, only to realize that her photographic memory isn't responsible for her "only" remembering her worst memories; she chooses to do so. (Ah, I did bring in pop culture!)

The opposite of this would be Pollyanna-ism or, from Freud's point of view, denial. Either way, we don't select ALL memories when we create our stories; we select certain memories and discard others.

(2) Comparisons.

Again, this is a survival mechanism. We must compare in order to not get eaten by wolves.


In one class, I asked students about their assumptions regarding people. A student told me in all seriousness, "I don't make assumptions about people." I didn't contradict her, but I pointed out to the class that it is natural to make assumptions since we have to start from somewhere in order to learn. I assume that traffic will be bad around noon and five because whenever I'm driving around town at noon and five, it is. So I avoid driving in town around noon and five if I can.

Granted, assumptions about people are more problematic and should be rigorously questioned.  Knowing that we make assumptions can alert us to where our brains are. Lizzy assumed that Darcy was an arrogant jerk based on a few hours in his company; her experiences with him in other milieus led her to realize how much she had assumed in the first place (and how faulty those initial assumptions were).

Assumptions are embedded in comparisons--we have experiences which lead us to assume "truths" about people, so the next time we have an experience, we compare it against the experience we previously had ("The last time I was in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, people called for security, so the next time I'm in a room with a big, scary, yelling dude, I'll leave.").

Unfortunately, comparisons, while unavoidable, always reach a point where they become downright demoralizing. And they become unhelpful when they preclude new information. If, for example, Lizzy continued to compare Darcy only against his previous behavior, she would fail to recognize that he is a good landowner and charmingly diffident when encountered on his own property. (Miss Bingley does make the comparison mistake, failing to recognize that Darcy's opinion of Lizzy has changed.)

Overall, I believe comparisons become unhelpful when they become non-constructive. Maybe I'm not enough of a Horatio Alger American but I've really never understood the comparison of rich to poor. I don't particularly want to live like most rich people, so why would I want their stuff?

It seems so much more constructive to be happy with what I have and (additionally) to be happy for what other people have. The only people that I am really jealous of are people who live in apartments overlooking Central Park, and they are so mindbogglingly wealthy, they might as well be aliens. Seriously. Aliens and space. Because sure, I would like to go to space, but I've never been even remotely jealous of someone who has--nope, not even Howard from Big Bang Theory.

(3) Interpretation. The same event can be interpreted multiple ways.

Interpretation is the most controversial of the three points. I could argue, for example, that being a woman in a culture that (still) contains many patriarchal institutions and mentalities has weakened me as a person. I could also argue that being a woman in this situation has made me tough.

Rimmer sees his life as a series of totally unfair events.
Linking self-esteem to action ("you are what you do") could make kids stronger; it could also make them unable to persevere when they fail. Helicopter parenting could make kids less independent; it could also give them a sense of "hey, what I do matters!" Interpretations don't  only change between individuals; they change between eras and historical periods.

Ultimately, it is the individual who interprets and creates his or her story (creating stories about other people's lives is fraught with problems). I can--and have--looked at events in my life from one exclusive perspective until something happened that shifted my viewpoint. I then tried interpreting those same events from an entirely new perspective ("Ooooh, that was a good thing, not a bad one"). Like many people, I often settle on a mixed interpretation.

The older I get, however, the more useful I find the positive interpretation. I'm not talking Pollyannism so much as a reasoned argument that the positive interpretation could be true. As an adjunct, I could argue, for instance, that the unreliability of the work, the resentful attitude of the administration, and the lack of funds IS what my job is all about. I could also argue that the variation of work, the growing availability/use of contract jobs in the academic world, and the pride I have at making a living under adverse conditions outweigh the negatives--and personally, I think they do!

Other adjuncts don't. Those adjuncts seem to me rather unhappy, sometimes downright bitter.

Here's my main point: the bitter state of mind is boring. Literally. When I fall into that state of mind, I get bored with myself. I'll suddenly think, "Wow, this is so dull. I'd rather be watching TV," so I do.
Turns out, Ace Rimmer--Rimmer's
charismatic, happy double--was
the one who was (unfairly) "held
back a year," not the original.

C.S. Lewis got it right--hell as a state of mind is an utter wasteland of monotony. He made it a bureaucracy. I would make it a business cocktail party. Either way, there are better things to do.

Regarding the stories, once formed, I'm not sure how prophetic they are--on the one hand, a negative story can create a downward spiral of self-reproach and self-denigration. On the other, the happiness experts (yes, there really are some!) argue that one's level of happiness remains fairly constant (within 6 months after a hugely positive or hugely negative event, people tend to return to their state of happiness before the event, whatever that state might have been).

I do believe that the story one creates can help make one's current situation bearable or non-bearable. It may not be prophetic but it certainly intertwines with the "norm." According to happiness experts, one's "norm" is determined by one's biological/hormonal baseline; meditation/prayer; and one's sense of accomplishment in the world. The last can be service; it can also be finding a career one likes and/or creating something for others to appreciate.

In other words,  referring to the last item, happiness in the now is about adding to the universe, even (I apologize for the sappiness) if that addition is a card or a smile or a silly joke.

Stories by definition are constructive, negative or not. Stories that formulate a positive out of a person's life are even better.


  1. To an extent, I think you've mixed up cause and effect.

    As for "interpretation", looking at it from the language point of view helps. How we interpret words is, I believe, partly dictated by how our brain is wired together, but also by that data we crammed into our brain over lifetime and that data is often inconsistent with others' data or downright wrong.

    For example, what is "pain"; we've all experienced different kinds of pain so how we interpret "I'm in pain" is remarkably tricky.

    (The weirdest part of this is when you somehow get a totally wrong definition of a word in your head and only much later do you discover just how badly this served you.

    For example, when I was very young, my internal definition of "rape" was the earlier one: the wanton destruction or spoiling of a place or area. When eight or nine, I used it in that context and got a rather big lecture from my mom, who was locked into the modern definition.

    However, to be fair, my definition was actually more correct, and I think still is, but at that age, I hadn't attuned to the cultural overtones of the word and thus caused offense.)

    Language is so personal, it's a wonder we communicate at all.

  2. Rambling point two: Comparisons (assumptions or, worse, judging or, horror or horrors, stereotyping.)

    Turns out that judging using stereotyping is one of the most valuable abilities we have and denying it is a good way to get yourself hurt or killed.

    Yes, evil people often break the stereotype, but that doesn't invalidate it since most don't. For example, if you see someone laughing and running around, they may be a little crazy, but are probably [statistically] harmless. But, if you see someone screaming like a maniac and running around with nothing but a loincloth and a big knife, that person is very likely crazy and you should avoid them.

    Where idealists and those with an axe to grind make a huge blunder is positing that if you ignore your stereotyping/judgemental impulses and become a victim of one level or another, you bear no responsibility. This is nonsense. (It gets more nuanced and complicated--let's say I was speeding in my car and get hit by a drunk driver in a way that is entirely not my fault. I bear no responsibility to getting hit, but may bear some, or perhaps all, for the extra injuries I received because I was speeding!)

    Of course, if we simply said prototype, instead of stereotype, and pretend we don't mean exactly the same thing.

  3. I think the types of stories--or even the stories themselves--that we create can be linked to other causes. As far as I know I won't be telling any (true) stories any time soon about myself winning the Olympics or about myself watching a live gladiators' show in the Coliseum.

    Oops, spoke too soon!

    No, not really.

    But the thing that each person decides is "I" is entirely story-based. It can't be anything else! We imagine ourselves into the world. (I'm getting into "everything is relative" territory, which I don't believe; still, eh, I am talking about the subjective experience.) Very few people, even druggies, don't create a purpose for "me" through story. And that "me" becomes a driving force in the present although, as I mentioned in my post, I'm not sure how long-term it is. How much do we justify after the fact?

    Yet we hunt for the stuff that makes our story (or our justification). "I hate cats. A cat once chewed my hand off." or "I'm allergic." or "All my ancestors hated cats." or "My fight-flight response is so strong that sharp-teethed mammals send me spinning out of control."

    For the record, I love cats.

    At some point, there is so much material to choose from, the story has to be selective or self-created. I personally think this is a survival mechanism: we create a story that draws together seemingly disparate information in order to have a unified "I". I imagine that only existentialists ever argued, "I am the thing/person/me that I am doing in this moment."

    And how many of them stuck to that when it came time to ask for a raise? :)

  4. I totally agree about language! It was the first day of school today, and I taught three Composition sections. I begin every Composition course the same way--I reveal that I am a geek (I show a Star Trek clip of Captain Picard and Counselor Troi discussing how to negotiate with a bunch of aliens); then I discuss how the clip relates to the problem of communication: even a friend (someone on the same wavelength) can mislead us through directions. Likewise, the phrase, "What a cute dog!" could refer to "a Siberian Husky," "a furry dog," "my dog," "a puppy with floppy ears" (responses I got today). A different image pops into everyone's head, which means that everyone's eventual understanding might be a little different (or tremendously and depressingly different if one meant to got to NYC and ended up in Buffalo).

    The purpose of my course, hopefully, is to help close the gap between the words and how they are understood. I argue that the gap can't ever be completely closed. BUT I argue that we should try. I also argue against the idea that the "artist" (writer) only has to express him or herself. "Your job is to reach the audience!" I say.

    Ah, the adrenaline rush of the first day! By the end of this week, I'll be writing comments like, "Write good words. Make ideas." (Remembering past first weeks, I wrote my post for Friday last week.)

  5. I wonder if cherry picking evidence and multiple interpretations explains a tendency I've noticed of people having views of themselves that differ than reality. In Junior High, I knew a girl who thought her hair color was different than what it was. (To be fair, she thought her hair was red when it was light brown when it wasn't too much of a leap.) I knew a really ugly guy who was always admiring his reflection and very pretty girl who thought she was ugly.

    I've known a few number people who thought they were a lot smarter than they were. (I've fallen into that trap myself.) I've listen to men lecture others on masculinity and within seconds talk about his love of musical theater.

    Or maybe I'm cherry picking evidence and misinterpreting them.

  6. :)

    Apparently people believing themselves smarter than they really are is fairly common. A book called Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson addresses the reason. Which I don't remember. Once I track down the book, I'll post the explanation!

  7. It has to do with college students not being able to draw a bicycle that would actually work. Though I'm probably getting the book confused with a Brain Games episode. Either way, I'll read one or watch one.

    I probably would think that I know how a bicycle works--and not be able to draw it. I KNOW I don't know how electricity works. Seriously. At some level, I'm just the Cat.

  8. But Kate, what causes me to filter the stories I tell about myself? What made me decide how to decide?

    That said I agree that we consciously define our personality by choosing to tell ourselves the stories that reinforce the values we want to associate with ourselves.

    The value of socialization is 3rd party observers can correct us when what we think about ourselves is too out of whack with reality. Yes, Dan, you are funny. Just not that funny. And you really ought not to sing too loud.

  9. According to Brain Games, our brains are wired to try to solve problems and will attempt to solve problems no matter what; after all, there is so much stuff in our brains, they must know enough to solve any problem (the accumulation of "stuff" is why adults do this more often than children).

    People who study this type of thing call this phenomenon the "Illusion of Knowledge." The idea is that the more we know, the more we believe we should (or do) know.

    I have seen this with my students; when they research, they are convinced that selecting a topic that turns up 1,000 sources is better than a topic that turns up 5. The 1,000 sources offer the Illusion of Knowledge or control. It also makes the topic far more difficult to write about! Likewise, I don't allow them to write their persuasion papers on overused topics, like abortion, because they think they know everything about those topics simply because such topics are talked about so much. So they don't carry out even minimal research. And their papers suffer.

    Car Talk also provides an example of the Illusion of Knowledge. Click & Clack were asked a question to which they did not know the answer, yet they started speculating about what the answer could be anyway. Andy wrote them the following (which the brothers read on the air while giggling at themselves):

    "Posit the question: Do two people who don't know what they are talking about know more or less than one person who doesn't know what he's talking about? One person will only go so far out on a limb in his construction of deeply hypothetical structures, and will often end with a shrug or a raising of hands to indicate the dismissability of his particular take on a subject. With two people, the intricacies, the gives and takes, the wherefores and why-nots, can become a veritable pas-de-deux of breathtaking speculation, interwoven in such a way that apologies or gestures of doubt are rendered unnecessary."

    Of course, without rampant speculation, what fun would life be?! (I admit, I prefer it when it is focused on questions about how people think or time travel and dislike it when it is focused on stuff like THE WORLD IS ENDING!)