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Why Reading That Pop-Psychology Book is So Compelling

Why Reading That Pop-Psychology Book is So CompellingEveryone loves a good story. The series of TED videos demonstrates that a good story is at the crux of making some sort of point.

Countless fiction authors have made good on this idea for centuries. Taking a page from their playbook, social scientists started doing the same thing in pop-psychology books that quickly turned into best-sellers.

Which begets the question. If a story is such a fertile medium to share science in, shouldn’t the books mention they are contributing to the same irrationality they are trying to warn you against?

Samuel McNermey wrote the best critique of this issue for Scientific American back in 2012:

This is one of the reasons we humans love narratives; they summarize the important information in a form that’s familiar and easy to digest. It’s much easier to understand events in the world as instances of good versus evil, or any one of the seven story types. As Daniel Kahneman explains, “[we] build the best possible story form the information available… and if it is a good story, [we] believe it.” The implication here is that it’s how good the story is, not necessarily its accuracy, that’s important.

But narratives are also irrational because they sacrifice the whole story for one side of a story that conforms to one’s worldview. Relying on them often leads to inaccuracies and stereotypes. This is what the participants in Brenner’s study highlight; people who take in narratives are often blinded to the whole story – rarely do we ask: “What more would I need to know before I can have a more informed and complete opinion?”

And that’s the core of pop-psychology books — even the New York Times bestsellers. They are weaving a wonderful story to share with you all of the science and data that can make their point.

But the story itself is meant to appeal to your emotional, irrational side. And as social scientists, all of the authors are aware that their story will work its magic on you (even if the data don’t fully support their conclusions). Research “shows us that people are not only willing to jump to conclusions after hearing only one side’s story, but that even when they have additional information at their disposal that would suggest a different conclusion, they are still surprisingly likely to do so.”



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