We love telling stories. We’re captivated by dramatic tales of danger faced, love won and lost, good guys and bad guys.
Our brains are hard-wired for story-telling, and for listening to stories. We love stories so much that it’s normal for us to make them up all day long.
And stories that give meaning to our experience are the most compelling. No one likes not knowing why something happened or how things fit together. It turns out that every time we find a storyline that makes sense to us, we get a hit of dopamine (happy-juice for our brains) as a reward for solving a puzzle to our liking.
Unfortunately, that same chemistry is not tied to accuracy. We get the happy-juice reward, whether the story is true or false, as long as it provides an explanation that is plausible to us. We just need to believe that our explanation is the most logical one. In order to minimize uncertainty in the face of incomplete information, we guess about whatever is missing.
Once we have created a story that makes sense to us, we usually stop looking for alternatives. We’ve got our answer, we’ve been rewarded with dopamine, and now we can get on with our day. Almost immediately, we forget that we made up the story and come to think of the imagined motivations of the other person as true. The next time we talk to, or about, that person, this new “truth” about them will influence that conversation. If we share our story with others, that will influence how they see that person. This is an excellent recipe for conflict.
For example, if we discover that our great-aunt has given our older brother a larger gift than she gave us, we can create a number of stories to explain that reality. One version is that our aunt plays favorites and isn’t fair. Another is that she’s not paying attention and doesn’t even realize that the amounts were different. Maybe we even worry that our brother is pressuring her for more money. Those stories naturally affect our relationships with our brother and our great-aunt.
Not surprisingly, of the stories that would explain the behavior we see, we tend to favor the one that puts us in the best light. Whether we are the Innocent Victim (a perennial favorite) or the Brave Carrier of the Light, we lean toward stories that cast us as a basically good person.
What if the truth is something we didn’t think of? Returning to our example, our sister tells us our great-aunt may have given a larger gift to our brother because he calls her regularly to check-in. She naturally feels inclined to give him more because he shows that he cares for her. Hmmm. It’s clear why we might not have considered that possibility – it puts us in a less favorable light.
What can we do to compensate for these tendencies? As usual, a good starting point is to begin with ourselves. Begin to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves about others. Do we know they’re true or do we just think they are? Try embracing the most positive interpretation of their motives. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Then reality-test – check out other sources of information. Ask yourself what makes you think this version is true. A straightforward step is to check with the person and ask them what was on their mind. This has to be done respectfully, but they may welcome the chance to have the conversation and clear-up any misunderstandings.
So, as we go into the thick of the holiday season, let’s experiment with questioning the stories we tell ourselves about other people. We may find that it’s just a bit easier to get along if we do.