Our lives are made up of what some have called useful fictions. These are mind tools, mental fabrications, and agreements of the collective imagination that help us understand and navigate our world. For example, when those of us who are sighted look up at the sky on a sunny day and call it blue, we are assigning an agreed upon construct to the interpretation our brains make of electromagnetic waves causing electrons and protons inside air molecules to oscillate at a frequency that can be captured by the photoreceptors in our eyes.
Why do we do this story making? Among other reasons, it’s a matter or survival and connection. Author Michael Austin writes about the human proclivity for telling stories and posits that this is because it’s largely adaptive. Most living creatures have evolved to experience pleasure when engaged in something that lends itself to survival of the species. Not only do we find pleasure in stories, but they help us compile, capture, and transfer information that can steer us toward what is life sustaining and away from what is life diminishing. Useful fictions serve as a model or a map and offer simplifications and certainties in a complex and often ambiguous world.
Our social world, with its rules, practices, and assignments of prestige and power, is not fixed; rather, we construct with it words, stories and silence. By writing and speaking against them, we may hope to contribute to a better, fairer world. ~ Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic
Stories can both produce and assuage anxiety, which can help us adapt by motivating us to act to avoid danger and take rest when it is safe. The seductiveness of a useful narrative is it’s convenience – it can be quickly cut from whole cloth and doesn’t have to be true to be of use. For example, the placebo effect demonstrates that simply believing we might have received a medical treatment can lead to symptom improvement, even when the intervention is an inactive or “sham” medication or surgery. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, wrote about how simply believing our intelligence and talents can be cultivated and grown is correlated with hard work, sustained effort, and resilience, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research indicates a belief in free will is associated with better job and academic performance, increased life satisfaction, positive affect, and less antisocial behavior.
Being a part of group has been crucial to our survival as a species, so it’s no surprise that we employ useful fictions that help connect us to others and give us a sense of belonging. Constructs like family, culture, and nation are all created by humans and don’t exist in their own right. In addition, it’s easier for people to live together peacefully when we have some fundamental agreements. Stories can help persuade people regarding what is right or true and the vast majority of us will conform to this under social pressure. Since what is experienced is observer dependent, a tendency to conform can help us agree on some universal truths – and this tendency is quite powerful.
Solomon Asch in 1951 devised an experiment using a line judgment task. A naive participant was placed in a room along with 7 confederates and each person had to state out loud which line from a set of comparison lines was most similar to the target line projected on a screen. The choices were not ambiguous, but very clear. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed to social pressure to choose the wrong line at least once, and only 25% of participants never conformed. The bigger the majority group (number of confederates), the more people conformed.
This probably gets you thinking about the ways in which these useful fictions might actually become harmful. Conformity can come at a cost. When we suppress our own wisdom in order to please or get along with others, we can experience painful dissonance – participants in the Asch studies were found to have greatly increased levels of autonomic arousal. Conformity can also make us act against our own deepest values and best interests – and some of us are much more susceptible to this than others. A number of studies have demonstrated that conservative-minded participants were more likely to succumb to social pressure and conform than those who were moderate to liberal-minded and researchers speculate this may be due to a greater number of useful fictions in which nonconformists are punished and followers are rewarded.
Our stories can allow us to avoid inconvenient truths. Some of what we think are useful fictions are actually maneuvers around complicated or difficult realities that we don’t understand or wish to face. Many of the atrocities of history had a long lead up of causes and conditions that contributed to tragedy. For example, the harmful fictions regarding the necessity of war, and the dualities of allies, enemies, punishment and reward, contributed to World War I and the subsequent destabilization of Germany, which in turn fueled grievances (more harmful fictions) that enabled the rise of Hitler and served as bitter justification in minds of many German people after the horrors of World War II.
Another problem is that survival doesn’t require happiness. When I’ve consumed apocalyptic books and films (like The Road or The Quiet Place), I’ve often found myself wondering, why are these people trying so hard? When we get too caught up in the fight for survival, we forget about what makes life worth living. Useful fictions that focus merely on personal survival without considering our deepest values, higher needs, or the wellbeing of others can create a life that’s hard to bear.
Our stories can distort our history, making it hard for us to learn from the past. Many of us have come to realize that the stories we’ve been told about our history are very distorted. One example is the narrative that war is part of human nature. R. Brian Ferguson in his Scientific American article War is Not Part of Human Nature wrote, “The idea that intensive, high-casualty violence was ubiquitous throughout prehistory has many backers. It has cultural resonance for those who are sure that we as a species naturally tilt toward war… early finds provide little if any evidence suggesting war was a fact of life… Once established, war has a tendency to spread, with violent peoples replacing less violent ones.” In the US the voices of people who were displaced and oppressed were largely left out of the narrative of this country’s history, which has led to great inequities in terms of whom we give power to and who we deem worthy of certain rights and benefits.
Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity – Margaret Mead
Some people create stories that may be immediately self-serving, but are ultimately harmful to others (or to everyone over the long term). A number of these self-serving useful fictions are designed to sow doubt in society’s fundamental agreements and trusted sources. Very little in life is certain and it’s a matter of integrity when scientists are transparent about the limitations of their research, but some wield doubt as a weapon to undermine the public trust. For example, as research was growing about the dangers of smoking, the tobacco industry created its own narrative designed to undermine the public’s trust in science. One tobacco industry leader wrote, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public.”
The Doctrine of Discovery is an example of a legal fiction – one which has been reimagined over the years through the minds of popes, monarchs, philosophers and judges in order to serve the powerful few at the cost of disenfranchisement and marginalization of the many. First elucidated under papal bulls, the Doctrine of Discovery purported that Christian nations of Europe could legally claim vast tracts of Indigenous land (terra infidelibus) simply by making landfall during the Age of Discovery (15th – 17th century). While the stated intent of the bulls was the conversion of Indigenous peoples to Catholicism, the true intention was “To Win and Conquer” – to gain “free power, authority and jurisdiction of every kind” over these “discovered” lands. European nations agreed amongst themselves to abide by those bulls and they have been used to justify the colonization of the US and Canada. US Chief Justice John Marshall, in the landmark 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh case, determined that papal bulls and agreements between European nations extinguished Indigenous title to land in the Americas and that the federal government, not tribes, had the sole authority to cede it.
Where Are We Empowered?
Mindfulness can help us recognize our fictions, discern whether they are useful or harmful, and see the world more clearly. Rather than acting impulsively based on time worn stories, we can pause and gather more information. We can ask ourselves whether our stories are true in a given moment, who they stand to benefit and who they might harm, and how the consequences of acting on our stories may unfold over time. Best of all, the fruits of our personal practice can ripple out to positively impact others. For example, in later studies, Asch found that even the presence of just one confederate that went against the faulty majority choice reduced conformity as much as 80%. The clarity and wisdom we gain through our mindfulness practice can help each of us play a role in the collective authoring of a world narrative that is kinder, more just and welcoming to all.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1-70.
Ferguson, R.B. (2018). War is Not Part of Human Nature. Scientific American 319, 3, 76-81.
Li C, Wang S, Zhao Y, Kong F and Li J (2017) The Freedom to Pursue Happiness: Belief in Free Will Predicts Life Satisfaction and Positive Affect among Chinese Adolescents. Front. Psychol. 7:2027.
Mallinson DJ, Hatemi PK (2018) The effects of information and social conformity on opinion change. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0196600.
Sistrunk, F., Halcomb, C.G. (1969). Liberals, conservatives, and conformity. Psychon Sci 17, 349–350.
Tavel, ME (2014). The Placebo Effect: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The American Journal of Medicine: Volume 127, Issue 6, Pages 484-488.
White, P (2022). How the Vatican encouraged the colonization of Indigenous lands – and enabled the Crown to keep them. The Globe and Mail.