The Story of Your Life

14th July 2017 – Independence Day!

Why you should change your Facebook settings

When I ask if anybody ‘would like an ice-cream?’, do I really mean it, or is it just that I want an ice-cream myself?

They say I’m a man of the world

Let me tell you about your life. Simple – I just go to Facebook and look you up – but we all know it’s not as simple as that. Not only is what we post a construction of the image we want to project, but by tagging different items to be visible by ‘the world’ or ‘friends’ etc. we are constructing different versions of ourselves for different people. We also know when we post certain items, the effect that it might have on certain people because we can model in our minds other peoples’ reactions (quite often entirely inaccurately).

Putting on Make-Up

I will spare you having to hear much about my own life, but I do want to tell you about stories, and about how we make them up about our own lives – how we use stories to explain ourselves to ourselves and how the stories are just that – far from being true and accurate representations of our personal history, they are just ‘made up’. And what’s more, they are not just made up for other people, they are also made up for ourselves.

It’s not that some of the events didn’t happen. It’s more that, did they happen in the way you think they did? Did they happen in that order and exactly that way? In conversation with others, the things we pick out to say, the descriptions we give, the interpretations of events and the explanations seem quite changeable –depending on who we are talking to and the intention behind what we are now saying.

Even the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives are re-constructions – and what’s more they are re-constructions to suit the needs of the current circumstances. They are rarely attempts to accurately re-create what actually happened at the time. They are re-constructions to explain our behaviours and justify our current intentions.

As we well know from fiction, a good story doesn’t need to be true or accurate, so long as it appears to provide a more or less satisfying framework to explain something. A good story is much to do with its presentation and very little to do with it’s truth.

If our stories are inaccurate then why do we find them so interesting. For a start, the story provides structure and orientation (see the blog ‘Knowledge is Power to Control‘). It makes sense of things that have happened and that you plan or would like to happen in the future. It is the more or less coherent account of how you explain yourself to yourself. It is how you see and interpret the things that happen and positions you with respect to them.

Perhaps your narrative includes the idea that you are the victim of circumstance – tossed around on a sea of unpredictable events outside your own control. On the other hand perhaps it includes you as the main actor, the protagonist, the one who influences, if not determines, the events. (See the blog post ‘What is Control?‘ that covers the concept of Locus of Control). I will illustrate later, with examples from criminal behaviour, how stories are often used to explain and drive ones own actions and lives.

Liquid History

That history is fluid can be quite difficult for a lot of people to understand. People assume that their memories are accurate and that history (their own and history generally) is a fixed and stable – as indeed it might be in some mechanistic or physical account of the unfolding of the universe. The trouble is, nobody has access to that account. The accounts we have access to are what we construct in our minds at any point in time. Even physical evidence of the past like photographs, written accounts and other recordings only amount to ‘evidence’ of what might have happened. The gaps between the evidence are often so huge that we can make up almost any story we like around them. This is well known in psychology in the study of eyewitness testimony.

Youtube Video, How reliable is your memory? | Elizabeth Loftus, TED, September 2013, 17:36 minutes

Digital Footprints

However, there is a sense in which the gap is closing as we keep digital records of more and more of out lives. This may be far more than we post on social media.

The other day I went out and bought a 4 terabyte computer hard drive. This can store getting on for 100,000 hours of music or a million photos. I have begun the process of copying data from all my old computers onto this one drive (just call me Sheldon). In terms of data, the biggest part of it is the audio recordings of conversations I have had with people over the years. This is followed by maybe 60,000 photos and perhaps 100 hours of video.

Also I noticed a year or two ago when setting up a new computer that I was copying across a quarter of a million files from my previous computer. Even allowing for operating system files and applications that’s a lot of files including many documents that I may have spend days working on.

It seems possible that with documents, emails, spreadsheets, pictures and so on, including versions and backups I might be generating, say, 100 files a day, or 36,500 files a year. For a child born today, who may well live to 100 that’s 3.65 million files not counting, spam emails, the files other people (like the government or employers) create, or the enormous amount of data we will capture once we all wear camera’s around our necks and on the dashboards of our cars. So, as far as data is concerned, that’s my life. That’s my digital footprint.

Even with all these data points as evidence of history I can still find myself in arguments with friends and colleagues about what happened on a particular occasion – even when we have all the emails, photos and other documentary evidence available. I can say ‘I said such and such to show you a possible solution’ and they can say ‘No, you said such and such because you wanted to prove I was wrong’. And so on it goes. Whatever, the ‘facts’ we can always have difference of interpretation about the intentions behind them.

This becomes most apparent in a court of law, even to the extent that there are extensive rules about what is admissible and how it can be interpreted. However, even in a court of law it is possible to create a story that is later found to have a more credible interpretation.

Youtube Video (Playlist), Retrial by TV: The Rise and Fall of Rough Justice 1/4, WOODDDDDDDYAMOVIES3, April 2011:14:50 minutes

So, could I create a true, stable and representative story of my life? Despite three million datapoints, at the other end of the spectrum, what is there to say? I was born and I will die. Anything that happens in between pales into insignificance, from a subjective perspective at least.

Somewhere in-between the 3 million files (like the one created now for this document, each one of which can be a story in its own right), and the ‘long story short’ of birth and death, is there a narrative that is ‘just right’?

Maybe I could find a handful of defining events that creates the unique shape of my own life, but then maybe I could also arbitrary pick any story genre (tragedy, romance, rags to riches, the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable obstacles) and, just like any good politician or policy maker that claims to be ‘evidence based’ cherry pick the facts to fit the story. I think I would go for ‘a surreal comedy of errors’.

On the other hand the ‘byte-sized’ digital footprint of an African brought up in a small village – consisting of a vaccination record and a World Health Organisation statistic would probably make a more interesting story.

Crime Stories

I said I would talk about crime. This is both an illustration of how ‘the story’ can be used to explain behaviour and also shows how changing the story of the past can potentially change the future.

I heard on the radio the other day, how ‘narrative’ was being used to understand criminals.

BBC Radio 4, Future Proofing – Crime, BBC iPlayer, May 2016, 43 Minutes

We usually understand crime in terms of statistics like the incidence of particular crimes in a particular area. But much more interesting and revealing is to get inside the mind of the criminal and understand what’s going on in his or her head. What is the motivation for the crime. What is the intention and how does the criminal think about what they are doing. So, for example, the search identifies four narrative types that can account for 70% if crimes. these are:

  • The type one criminal narrative is the criminal seeing themselves as an elated hero. They do it for the thrills

  • The type two criminal narrative is the professional criminal who sees what he is doing as a kind of career and as with all the careers develops skills and mastery over time

  • The type three criminal narrative is the victim – somebody who has been abused, disenfranchised, or otherwise done down. The crime is seen as some sort of retribution for this mistreatment

  • The type four criminal narrative is the depressed and helpless . They see the crime as some kind of inevitable consequence. They have no other choice.

These four narratives can’t tell the whole story though, because what about the criminal that steals to simply to stay alive, or the criminal that is feeding a drug habit or the many criminals that have mental health problems (see the blog post ‘Who’s to Blame’). These are such regular and strong themes that I would have thought they would be deserving of their own narrative.

One thing that makes these interesting is the way they map onto different types of crime. So type one crime tends to be shoplifting, burglary et cetera. Type three crime tends to be violent.

Looking at crime from this perspective makes it much more likely that we can address the underlying causes of crime and not just lock people up to keep them off the streets, then release them sometime later in a state in which they are even less equipped to escape their own life narrative.

Changing Lives

Now from changing the story to change lives.

I have a friend who is studying the topic of ‘systemic family therapy’. This is used in social work to help families look at their lives and maybe find better ways of coping with difficulties. Cases are usually referred to a social worker (maybe by a school or the police) when there is a problem with a child, especially when the child seems to be in some kind of danger.

It’s called ‘systemic family therapy’ because it looks at the child as embedded within a whole system of influences – the family, the school, the community and their family history. The family history is regarded as particularly important and there are techniques for capturing information going back several generations. The family history is important because it helps understand how the different members of the family see themselves. It is the story of their lives, where they come from, and where they think they are destined to go. It is tied up to where you think you belong. Did you come from a family that was maybe abusive or criminal, or maybe from a long line of diplomats or politicians?

Youtube Video, Systemic Family Therapy, TheSynapse, November 2016, 13:40 minutes

Systemic family therapy includes concepts drawn from narrative psychology and social constructivism.

YouTube Video, Narrative Therapy with Children Video, PsychotherapyNet, May 2009, 5:21 Minutes

I always knew from my study of psychology that memory is largely a reconstruction. So rather than just directly recalling a mental image of what I had for breakfast this morning, I am just as likely to ask myself ‘what would I have had for breakfast this morning?’, given my habits, where I happen to be, who’s around and so forth, and then this ‘evidence’, so to speak, with any luck will trigger the recall of a specific mental image. Only afterwards would I confirm that this mental image was the one that made sense.

When I think about breakfast last Tuesday, however, it’s quite likely, that unless I think very hard, I could get it wrong – I might recall a fragmentary mental image from another day. It could be wrong in its entirety or, at least, in it’s detail. Something like breakfast happens often enough that it would be easy to get mixed up between the many fragments of images that may be stored away. Most of the time it’s just not worth the effort of trying to reconstruct an accurate image or account of what happened, so we don’t bother and just run with the first thing that pops into our mind. When I discuss with a friend what happened when we ate together last Tuesday we may not just ‘load’ the wrong mental image but, as touched on above, we may well have interpreted what went on entirely differently.

Although I have understood for a long time that our recall is often inaccurate, until I became familiar with systemic family therapy, what I had not seen quite so clearly before was the extent to which we are constantly reconstructing the past and our interpretations of reality to suit the needs of the present.

What was a disaster becomes an opportunity, what was love becomes betrayal, what was a coincidence becomes a turning point.

Social constructivism is the idea that there is no objective past or simple objective reality. Rather, in the course of conversations that we have with each other, we reinterpret and reconstruct the past and reality to suit the needs of the present. It is not so much a denial of the existence of an objective reality as a realization that that reality is constantly being subjectively re-interpreted through the filters of our own experience and understanding, especially as informed by those around us.

Youtube Video, Social Construction,Sociological Images, September 2008, 10:36 minutes

This is an important idea with many implications. For example, it implies that concepts like ‘money’ and ‘property ownership’ are not absolute givens. They merely exist by common agreement.

BBC Radio 4, Barbed Wire: 50 Things that made the Modern Economy – Tim Harford, July 2017, 8:58 minutes

Does all this imply that every story is as good an explanation for evidence as any other? Have we discovered that all facts are ‘alternative facts’ – that there is no stability, that the ground is constantly moving under our feet, that everything is so fluid that it will fit to the shape of any container that we pour the evidence into?

The short answer is ‘no’. In the courts, in science, in everyday conversation we are compelled to seek patterns in ‘the evidence’ and to build models in our minds of what’s going on. Inconsistencies create dissonances that drive us to resolve them.

Clearly some stories are more plausible than others. However, you might find a story plausible while I don’t. I might find a story plausible one day but not the next. This opens up the whole subject of how we believe what we come to believe that forms the epistemological foundations of our lives (see the blog post ‘Its Like This’). It also touches on how the accuracy of our models confers the ability to control (see the blog post ‘Knowledge is Power’).

As if that wasn’t enough

So, not only do we re-invent the past to suit the needs of the present, but it is now becoming apparent that even the present is a sort of made-up story. Your perceptions are not reality. Rather they are a set of expectations about reality as much as they are reality acting as input to your senses.

YouTube Video, Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality, TED, April 2017, 17:00 minutes

So What?

So what? What does all this matter? Here are a few possible implications:

  • Be more humble. Have less confidence that you know what’s going on, or that you know best, or have the right answers. There are always multiple interpretations, even of the present, but especially of the past as it retreats from the present. What appears objective or true is relative to a particular frame of reference. There is no certainty, even in science – only more or less plausible stories.

  • Be prepared to challenge. Just like you can’t be sure of your story nobody else can be sure of theirs. Challenge conventional wisdom. Challenge politicians. In fact, the more confident a person is the more they should be challenged. See if their story really does hang together. A good story is not necessarily a true story.

  • Listen for intention. If someone says ‘it’s raining’ they may be simply making an observation, or maybe they mean ‘I don’t want to go out today’. Question more deeply. Ask why something is said as well as what is said. Distinguish between face value of a statement and underlying intention (especially in advertising and the media). Are you being offered something because it will benefit you or the giver. Ice-cream, anybody?

  • Live outside your bubble. The story you tell about yourself is, at least in part, a social construction formed by your interactions with the people around you. It is influenced by their values, their intentions, their language, social norms, symbols, and meanings. There is a natural tendency to only engage with people that re-enforce your own views and for you to re-enforce theirs. Break out. Diversify. At least change your Facebook settings from time to time.

  • Feel free to re-interpret: Is the story of your life holding you back? Well, it’s just a story and probably a story handed down or just accepted without much questioning. But it’s just a story. If you don’t like it, make up a better one.

In an uncertain and fast changing world, being able to re-invent your life may be just the skill you need.

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Further References

Youtube Video, Ken Gergen talks about Social Constructionist Ideas, Theory and Practice, Filippo Maria Sposini, April 2014, 39:59 minutes
Excellent account of social constructivism and how it liberates us to create the future

Youtube Video, The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED, October 2009, 19:16 minutes

YouTube Video, What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ Mean? – by Dr. Dennis Hiebert, Providence University College, December 2014, 14:44 minutes
This religious take on social constructivism separates objective reality from socially constructed reality and sets out different forms of social construction on two dimensions – how dependent the existence of something is on the human mind (a mountain is not while the concept of the mountain acting as a territorial boundary is), and how abstract or concrete it is (so both a hammer and the concept of ‘justice’ are both dependent on the human mind but differ along the concrete – abstract dimension). He concludes, somewhat ambiguously, that his beliefs about God are social constructions while his faith goes beyond that. I think he is saying that his belief in the existence of God (his faith) is neither a social construction nor necessarily an objective reality but everything else he knows or believes about God is a social construction).

BBC Radio 4, The Iron Maiden, The Reith Lectures 2017 – Hilary Mantel, First Broadcadcast July 2017, 41:38 minutes
How do we construct our pictures of the past, including both truth and myth, asks best-selling author Hilary Mantel. Where do we get our evidence?

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

Posted in Constructivism, Crime, Explanation, Knowledge, Mind, Narrative, Philosophy, Story, Systems theory

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.