Our brains are hardwired to make us all storytellers

23 January 2014

Professor Nick Chater

We all love a good story and it’s no wonder as it seems our brains are hardwired to make a story out of virtually anything.

According to scientists our brains are pre-ordained to make order out of chaos, to construct a story out of the debris of facts around us.

Warwick Business School Professor Nick Chater reveals how storytelling comes naturally as experiments have shown how our brains are continually putting order and structure on our environment and experiences.

“Just opening our eyes and surveying the scene in front of us requires an astonishing ability to synthesise order out of chaos,” said Professor Chater on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo.

“The activity on our retinas which is caused by the stimulation of light is just amazingly noisy and amazingly complicated, yet we find order very effectively - the brain is an extraordinary ‘order-finding’ machine.

“People are always trying to impose structure on the environment and there are two structures natural to impose.

“One is causality, so we want to understand what caused what, so the unfolding experience in front of us does not seem like a disconnected jumble, but actually has a logical structure.

“On top of that the world does not just consist of objects acting causally, like dominos knocking each over, but also involves people and people behave because of reason. Therefore we also want to explain human action by what people believe; what their secret motives were, what their intentions were and this is something that is absolutely essential to the idea of stories - that people’s behaviour is explained by hidden reason.”

An experiment on Radio 4 listeners showed how even when not asked people will put order on to chaos. Their task was to simply type out a sentence of mangled words and pass it on to the next person, like a game of Chinese whispers.

“We saw how people imposed order on a pattern even if their task is just to repeat it,” said Professor Chater. “They couldn’t help but re-arrange the letters so they could read the sentence properly. This ability to find order where there is none is something we can’t turn off.”

This bias towards putting things in order may give us a false reading of events like the financial crash, as a series of unforeseen events is now explained by most as being caused by ‘greedy bankers’.

“Our ability to produce stories about why things happened vastly exceeds our ability to predict what happens next,” said Professor Chater, head of Warwick Business School’s Behavioural Science Group. “That is a suspicious sign that we are over-interpreting the world. If you are going to explain the crash then there are many stories about this. It might be about different sectors of the economy, the housing market, bankers or too loose a fiscal policy, but the truth is pretty much nobody saw this coming.

“That is a clue that stories are not really an inevitable consequence of what went before - they are things we are imposing retrospectively.”

But Professor Chater believes that although this bias might produce an unreliable story of the past, it is vital if we are to survive in a chaotic world.

“The general bias to try to see order is a good one,” said Professor Chater, who is an advisor to the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team or as it is more commonly known the ‘Nudge Unit’. "Without having some structure we just don’t know what to do.

“So it is probably worthwhile for us to be biased towards seeing order in apparent chaos, even when the evidence is flimsy.”

Listen to Professor Nick Chater and Ed Gardiner on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo here.

To take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.

Professor Nick Chater teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on Warwick Executive MBA and Principles of Cognition on MSc Business.


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