Beware of The Stories You Believe

I have a confession to make.

I am wary of stories.

It may seem strange for me to warn you about the dangers of stories.

After all, I write about them to convince you of the merits of my arguments.

To understand why, here’s a story David Foster Wallace, a late American novelist once told:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”


Stuck in Narratives

Fish don’t know they’re in water. People don’t know we’re surrounded by stories too.

Every company tells of “Our Story.” Instagram and TikTok let ordinary people tell their “stories”. Self-proclaimed “Storytellers” on LinkedIn and X (Twitter) are a dime a dozen.

And it is not hard to see why.

Stories are the easiest way to our hearts.

It is how we make sense of what we’ve done, give meaning to our lives and connect with other people. The easiest way to get people to do what we want is to tell a good story.

What harm could possibly come from it?


The Narrative Takeover of Reality

Stories make us think we know more about the world than we actually do.

For stories to work, they have to be easy to understand and easy to remember.

As a result, we often leave out the complicated and inconvenient facts, because who wants to hear about them!

When reality is made to fit the structure of the narrative arc, it is often told in terms of good versus evil. It replaces the grey areas of our uncertain reality with black and white.

This problem is exacerbated by our tendency to make stories out of everything, even when there aren’t any.

In the now classic study, psychologists showed participants an animated film of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. People would often described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” and interpret the film as “a love story”. (Video:

Similarly, when we look at what is happening in the world, it is easy to think that someone must be responsible. For without intentions behind actions, there can be no story. It would just be a random accident or bad luck. So no, just like in the movies, there must be a conspiracy or part of a larger scheme.

This makes us easy to manipulate.

And we see this very clearly in politics.

No matter what the ideology is called, the basic plot is the same.

Also known as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, it is the underlying story template for our blockbusters, from Star Wars to the Harry Potter series.

First, the hero(you) learns about the bad people who are causing trouble in the world. As a result, the good people are being bullied. And they need your help. If you agree,  you will make friends, overcome trials and obstacles, grow and find meaning in your existence.

Wouldn’t you like to be a hero?

Yuval Noah Harari once said in a podcast, “When you see something as beautiful, you don’t understand the monster underneath.”

When someone presents us a beautiful story, it becomes hard to see what’s being hidden away. It becomes part of our metaphysical reality, like water is to the fish.


The Knowledge Illusion

Stories also evoke a sense of the inevitability of the chain of events, like dominoes falling.

The problem, of course, is that this certainty that we have does not actually correspond to the accuracy in real life.

Studies have found that people who are most susceptible to fake news or financial frauds, are those who know a little but are very confident of their ability to discern.

Even experts are not immune to it.

Many financial bubbles form because expert financiers think that they have eliminated some sort of risk and become overconfident in their investments.

Social scientists may think that their findings have an impact in real life but research seems to suggest otherwise.

We put ourselves in greater danger when we know a little but think we know a lot.


How’s The Story

That’s not to say we can or we should eliminate stories. Neither are stories bad. Like water to fish, stories will always be with us.

What we need to do instead is become aware of how some stories mislead and trap us in their falsehoods. Or worse, set us up against each other, preventing us from seeing our common humanity.

It’s the most obvious things that’s the hardest to detect.

And that’s why I am wary of compelling stories.

Because it lulls us into complacency and we forget to ask: How’s the story?