“I am a god. Level ten all alone!”
My brother’s face glowed blue from the television as he completed another level in the Call of Duty minigame. The fact that most people sleep at 3 a.m. didn’t phase his concentration as he simultaneously killed zombies and trashed talked his friends. His confidence rose as he continued to level up.
Social video games have exploded in recent years, and scientists have been trying to understand how they affect our brains. A review of the literature seems to reveal that the pattern recognition and resource management required to play most games will exercise a gamer’s cognitive functioning. In teenagers, active participation in social networks helps in the formation of a unique identity.
Does this justify playing video games? The short answer is no, for two primary reasons: the narrative fallacy and the nerd effect.
Enter The Narrative Fallacy
“We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our [natural] thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy.”
—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
The Ancient Egyptians had a theory that four elements composed every other substance: blood, air, water, and wekhudu. For years they chewed willow bark or drank willow tea because they noticed it helped ease the pain associated with sickness and inflammation. They attributed the healing properties of willow to an abundant presence of wekhudu.
Over time, progressive science discovered the active ingredient in willow bark: salicylic acid; the same active ingredient in aspirin. Of course, wekhudu doesn’t exist, yet this ignorance of the Egyptians didn’t stop willow bark from easing their sickness.
The point here is that the narrative we create around a phenomenon doesn’t change the outcome of the phenomenon; we could be wrong about the why and how, but that doesn’t change the what. Welcome to the narrative fallacy—a post hoc fallacy that stems from the human tendency to create stories around facts. The narrative fallacy then becomes dangerous when we attempt to draw conclusions and make projections from the narrative we’ve created, because there is always the chance that said narrative turns out to be wrong.
We could be wrong about the effects of salicylic acid. Absolute certainty is impossible (topic for a future post). Although, it is a good bet that we are right about salicylic acid because the science of chemistry has been proven over continual, widespread usage.
Notice: In the case of the Egyptians, I used a narrative to explain the narrative fallacy. Is this fallacious? No, because narration is also a literary tool. Without it, books and television would be boring. Narration is also a natural human tendency, and helps us understand abstract concepts. In this case narration is acceptable, but there is a fine line between literary narration and fallacious narration.
The Causation Trap
“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”
—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
In video games, the gamer becomes consumed by the storyline and identifies with the character. This is not an accident; any well-developed story will consume the viewer and appeal to their emotions. Ever notice how certain books and movies well-up the eyes of even the most stoical men? Such is the power of the narrative fallacy.
The more consumed the gamer, the deeper the fallacy has dug. The linear storyline of video games promotes a forced arrow of relationship on the causation of events as we understand them. We succomb to the causation trap when we overuse narration and force logical links between two events. Indeed, when taken to the extreme, this fallacy sounds much like paranoia.
The narrative fallacy also appeals to the confirmation bias: we will remember events that seem to fit our narrative and forget events that don’t, even if the forgotten events actually do play a causal role. The intimacy that the narrative fallacy shares with other logical errors is what makes this fallacy so powerful and pervasive. It constantly weaves its way through seemingly sound logic and nudges other fallacies, subtly, so as to go unnoticed. There isn’t just a fine line between fallacious and non-fallacious narration; at times it is hardly noticeable.
The Nerd Effect
The nerd I’m about to describe is not the classical nerd with taped glasses and a pocket protector. In the context of Black Swan Theory (another future post), the nerd is someone who only thinks within the confines of an imaginary box. He believes that the world has a preset order and, as a result, fails to account for possibilities and events outside of this order. He also fails to account for randomness pertaining to past events, and uncertainty concerning future events.
One of the most important tenets of Black Swan Theory is that we cannot predict the future. The nerd does not understand this. For him, past events have all occurred within an elegant framework, therefore, future events should as well. However, as I illustrated with the Egyptians, no framework exists—it is only fabricated by the nerd, post hoc. Given a distribution of coin-flips in which 70% came up heads, a nerd would reason that the sample size is too small and the distribution would approach normalcy after more trials—a rationalization that makes sense on paper, yet doesn’t account for all possibilities in reality. A nonnerd, by contrast, would rightly affirm that the coin is loaded.
Now, I’m not calling all gamers nerds. I’m just pointing to the fact that video games, especially online role-playing games, simulate the unreality that rests on the cusp of the nerd effect and the trap of causation. In-game situtations take the form of “perform action A, receive reward B.” Reality, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. A similar effect occurs in social networks: the reduction of individuals to profiles severely constrains the identity of the individual. The effect worsens when the person begins identifying with the profile, instead of their self, their individual.1
Escaping the Narrative Fallacy
Identifying the narrative fallacy is hard enough. Certainly you won’t avoid fallacious narration on your first try. What follows are some techniques to curb your natural tendency toward narration.
Self-Experiment and Test Your Assumptions
Fabricated narratives cannot stand up to properly conducted tests. In fact, the value of self-experimentation is such that it allows you to test your assumptions within your own life. Testing and experimenting allows you to gain insight into the true nature of causality.
Try logging how you spend your time or your food intake for one week. This is your baseline, your “control” data. From here, you can change one variable at a time. This is how you begin to establish real causation.
Keep A Diary
Seriously. Looking back on events, everything seems to fit perfectly into place, right? If you agree, into the causation trap you have fallen. Having a record of what you were actually thinking when you ended that relationship or quit that job will shed light on a fuzzy memory six months after the fact and expose the depths of your narrative. Just get thoughts down on paper. Nobody will read it except you, so it needn’t be perfect prose.
Don’t Become A Nerd
Always be aware of the limitations of your knowledge. Some things in life are uncertain; remaining realistic in regards to where this uncertainty could have a large impact is the first step toward becoming an Epistemocrat.
The second step in Epistemocratery is intelligently managing uncertainty to reap the rewards and minimize any consequences. This involves a complete understanding of the unknown unknown and the functions and attributes of a Black Swan (more future posts!).2
Links and Further Reading
Lamebook — Humorous examples of social networking gone wrong
The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine — A fantastic primer on the Stoic life-philosophy and my source for the Egyptian willow bark story.
“The Value of Self-Experimentation” by Dr. Seth Roberts
(Photo: Sebastian Fritzon)
- This is why I only use Facebook and the like for communication, never for socialization. It’s true that many people do this as well and avoid identifying with a profile, but from what I’ve seen it is easy for someone to become more comfortable with interacting online than face-to-face. This hinders the social development of the individual, could possibly lead to depression, and represents an extreme case of The Savanna Principle. I will grant that there is some evidence that video games enhance cognitive function, but the only papers I could find studied the physical performance of biological mechanisms, never the psychology of the individual. My concern is also with the epistomology of the situtation. ↩
- Although, if you think about it hard enough, you could probably come up with a way to manage uncertainty on your own. Here’s a hint: cost-benefit analysis. ↩