Narrative Fallacy in Feedback

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A narrative fallacy is when, in our attempt to make sense of a complex world, we construct and then believe in false and usually overly simple causes or stories about why or how something happened.

Mathematical statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term in his book The Black Swan. Taleb used the term to describe how these false stories, particularly about past events, lead us to develop certain expectations and beliefs about the future.

In essence, narrative fallacies are enticing mind traps; they make us feel we have some level of understanding and control in a world where we often don’t feel we have enough of either.

Narrative fallacies in feedback communication

These false stories and beliefs can impact how we give and receive feedback. And they need not be in-depth fairy tales. Even particular psychological or social leanings or beliefs toward certain people can impact feedback communication. Here are a few examples:

  1. A feedback giver assigns too much blame on a project’s failure to a colleague they’ve had tension with in the past.
  2. A senior business leader is likelier to ask for constructive feedback from a new colleague whose charisma they find charming than the introverted colleague they’ve worked with for many years.
  3. A feedback receiver is more prepared to adopt negative feedback from a white male coworker than from a black female coworker of equal seniority.

In speaking about narrative fallacies in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize recipient Daniel Kahneman says:

“Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions. You are always ready to interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits—causes that you can readily match to effects. The halo effect discussed earlier contributes to coherence, because it inclines us to match our view of all the qualities of a person to our judgment of one attribute that is particularly significant. If we think a baseball pitcher is handsome and athletic, for example, we are likely to rate him better at throwing the ball, too.”

Working with this cognitive illusion

Is it possible to turn down the volume on narrative fallacies when we enter into feedback relationships? Absolutely. Here again, we turn to Kahneman, who writes:

“Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

So, as it relates to feedback, here’s a way to approach it:

  1. Before giving constructive feedback, first try to find the missing puzzle pieces of the story you’ve created. Does that colleague indeed hold most of the responsibility for the project failing? How do you know?
  2. Before seeking or processing received feedback, ask yourself what beliefs you may hold about the giver. Why are you inclined to believe or disbelieve them? This can help clear some of the narrative fallacy clutter so you can more clearly see the feedback.

Ultimately, it comes down to questing our ignorance. While this can be challenging because, as we covered in The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Feedback, our ignorance often means we don’t know what we’re ignorant about, one way to approach this is to recognize when we have constructed overly simple stories—and then investigate how we pieced that story together.


Additional readings:

  1. Getting Feedback on Adopted Feedback
  2. Show and Tell When Giving Feedback
  3. Feedback and Trauma