December 2nd, 2016

I just read a most interesting article. You know how we’re always talking about bias these days? We’re usually talking in relation to Trump and the right-wing side of politics, sometimes race, sometimes gender or sexuality.

Well I just read about another kind of bias – “narrative bias”.

Basically it’s about how humans view the world through story lens – we have a tendency to view things as part of a bigger, broader picture, or story. If we are not given the beginning, middle, and end, or the vital characters, to a situation or circumstance, we’ll oftentimes create the missing pieces based on whatever little details are given.

The article came out of a subscription I have with Society for Technical Communicators so the examples are related to digital content. The following is the example that really stuck with me:

Answer this question:

Do you think the average person in the United States is more likely to have:

  • A) A Ph.D. (doctorate) degree, or
  • B) A high-school diploma, but no college education?

Probably you chose B, along with the majority of the people who answered the survey. B is the correct answer – the number of US citizens with a Ph.D. is only about 1.7% of the population.

But now, when we add a little detail and change the wording of the question a little:

A visitor reading an article on the New York Times website is more likely to be:

  • A) Someone who holds a Ph.D., or
  • B) Someone who graduated from high school, but did not attend college

What answer would you choose? I chose A because have you tried to read the Economics section of the NYT? Crazy dull. So many big words. Why would anyone other than a Ph.D. graduate want to read that cardboard? The NYT is considered an “intellectual” paper, therefore of course higher-educated people would be the majority of readers.


Let’s go back to the statistic that 1.7% of the US holds a Ph.D.

1.7% of the population totals a mere 3.6 million people – the NYT receives 22.3 million unique visitors every month. That means the number of people who read the NYT per month is over six times larger than the number of people who have a Ph.D. So statistically speaking, A cannot be the correct answer to the above question.

But that’s what happens when us storytelling humans receive a small detail: we build a bigger story around it. By adding the detail about Ph.D. holders reading the New York Times in the question, we built the story that the people reading the “intellectual paper” have to be intellectual themselves and thus, logically, the correct answer has to be A.

So that’s a little bit of background on the “narrative bias” I just read about. But I started thinking about it some more and found that I began to apply that same bias to situations outside of content-building and technical communications – such as Trump, the right-wing side of politics, race, gender, and sexuality.

Personally speaking, I very much can be the storyteller they’re talking about in the article. Like when I see “right-wing” in a headline, I immediately start applying the right-wing as the villain in the story – even before I’ve read the article. When I see something about a person of colour, I might start building some kind of tragic backstory for them, usually at the hands of a white person in a position of authority.

So just imagine what kind of stories people are building behind people like Trump. We both know there are people who cast him as the hero in their narrative – just like we cast him as the villain. That narrative bias is intense – especially if the media knows how to work with it and how to manipulate people with the right kinds of details.

It’s fascinating.

And it all boils down to humans being storytellers and needing narrative.


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