The Story of Stories

Why is my friend late? How does nuclear fission work? What occurs when I sneeze? We all need to understand why certain things happen. Some researchers think the drive to explain the world is a basic human impulse, similar to thirst or hunger. This week on Hidden Brain, we begin a three part series on why we tell stories. Psychologist Tania Lombrozo discusses how explanations can lead to discovery, delight, and disaster.

Additional Resources

Research Studies:

“Morality Justifies Motivated Reasoning,” by Corey Cusimano and Tania Lombrozo <forthcoming in Cognition>.

Ockham’s Razor Cuts to the Root: Simplicity in Causal Explanation,” by M. Pacer and Tania Lombrozo, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2017.

Explanatory Preferences Shape Learning and Inference,” by Tania Lombrozo, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making,” by Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, October 2015

The Role of Explanation in Discovery and Generalization: Evidence from Category Learning,” by Joseph J. Williams and Tania Lombrozo, in Cognitive Science, December 2009.

Functional explanation and the function of explanation,” by Tania Lombrozo and Susan Carey, in “Cognition, August 2004

Grab Bag:

The illusion of explanatory depth: What makes us arrogant, by the University of Edinburgh.

Fact or Fiction?: Archimedes Coined the term ‘Eureka!’ In the bath, by David Biello, Scientific American, December 8, 2006.

Are Stories a Key to Human Intelligence? By Tania Lombrozo, NPR’s Cosmos and Culture web page, June 13, 2016.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, a local ruler had a problem. He suspected his new crown was not made of solid gold, but he couldn't prove it. So he asked the kingdom's most famous mathematician, Archimedes, to investigate. While pondering this puzzle, Archimedes took a bath. He filled it up to the brim and as he stepped in, the water overflowed. Archimedes had a flash of insight. The water that spilled out of the bath reflected the volume of his own body. He realized that if he put the crown into water, he could measure its volume by seeing how much water was displaced. He could use this to tell the difference between a crown made of pure gold and one that had impurities. He was so excited with his discovery that he leaped out of the tub and ran naked through the streets shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" Which is Greek for "I found it!I found it!" The famous story of the eureka moment may or may not have happened. It was written 200 years after Archimedes died, but it says something profound about our minds: A good explanation gives us pleasure. And when we can't come up with a good explanation, we feel dissatisfied. Something in the human mind yearns to make sense of the world. Some researchers think this sense-making drive is a basic human impulse, no different than thirst or hunger. This week on Hidden Brain, we begin a three part series about our need to explain the world and how the stories we tell ourselves can lead to discovery, delight, and disaster......

Shankar Vedantam: Why is my friend late? How does nuclear fusion work? What exactly is happening when I sneeze? Human beings have an endless number of questions. At Princeton University, psychologist Tania Lombrozo is interested in why we come up with all these questions and how our drive to make sense of the world reveals something fundamental about our minds. Tania Lombrozo, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Tania Lombrozo: Thank you so much for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Tania, I want to start with a personal mystery you once encountered in your own life. Your toddler returned home from preschool one day wearing different pants than the ones she wore in the morning. Tell me how the rest of this mystery unfolded.

Tania Lombrozo: That observation in itself wasn't so surprising. Toddlers have accidents of all kinds all the time. And so it was pretty familiar that you might have different pants because your potty training toddler might've had an accident. But at this point, my toddler had been very well potty trained for months and hadn't had an accident. And so on Monday, this was a little surprising. But it was even more surprising when we went back to pick her up on Tuesday and found, again, that she had different pants on and had another accident. And then on Wednesday and then on Thursday. So I found the teacher and said, "What's going on? She was perfectly potty trained. What happened?" And the teacher explained that on Monday, she'd made an interesting observation that the girls peed sitting down, but that boys peed standing up and she thought to herself, "I want to learn how to do that too." And so all week she had been practicing peeing standing up.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, this is a really charming story. But I want to draw your attention to Tania's thought process as the week unfolded. On Monday, when her child came home wearing different pants, she came up with one explanation. Her daughter had had an accident. But when the same thing happened on Tuesday and Wednesday, Tania came up with a different explanation. Maybe her daughter was regressing on her potty training. Finally, when the teacher explained what was going on, Tania now had one simple story that unified and explained everything. As a researcher, Tania is fascinated by how our minds yearn for such stories and explanations and what happens when we can't find them.

Tania Lombrozo: One very mundane example that I can think of is the experience I had when I was trying to find parking as a professor at Berkeley where I taught for many years. People who live in the area know that parking can be a challenge. So I would develop all of these pet theories that maybe if it was noon on a Tuesday, then this particular parking lot was probably a good place to park because at noon, I bet the law school professors go out to lunch. But the engineers, they probably don't go out to lunch. So I shouldn't try the lot by engineering. And so I would develop these pet theories to try to figure out what was going on. And perhaps a given pet theory would work for a week or two, but then by week three, it no longer worked and I had to say, maybe there's not much patterns here. Maybe I'm picking up on noise.

Shankar Vedantam: You cite the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould who once said that humans were primates who tell stories. What's the connection between the world of stories and the world of explanations?

Tania Lombrozo: I think both stories and explanations are ways that we really try to make sense of or understand the world around us. The way I think about them is there are sort of two ends of a continuum. A good story is one that's full of detail and creates visual images and emotions. A good explanation tends to be a bit more abstract. It might appeal to general features of the world for thinking about science. It might appeal to scientific laws and regularities. And I think if you look at everyday cases of explanation, we do a mix of storytelling and appealing to these more general features of the world. So, for example, if you see a friend arrive late to work and you say, "Why were you late to work?" The friend might appeal to some general ideas like there was traffic. But she might also tell you how she woke up five minutes later than she intended to and then she was rushed and then she burned her toast, all of these very concrete details that really help you understand from her perspective what her morning was like and why she's in the emotional state that she's in and so on. So I think often we do both of these. We do the storytelling, which is very concrete and particular, and we do the explaining, which is much more about extracting the structure of the world in a way that's generalizable.

Shankar Vedantam: And when you say extracting the structure of the world in a way that's generalizable, what I'm getting from you is that explanations, and to some extent stories as well, are about constructing models for the world. They allow us to cut through confusion to distill complexity into simplicity.

Tania Lombrozo: Yes, I think part of what explanations do is that they relate our observations, which are highly variable, changing from moment to moment, to something more like a simple underlying structure that allows us to predict how things might go in the future. It's a way to try to extract order and regularity from what might otherwise seem disorganized and unsettling.

Shankar Vedantam: The more Tania thought about it, the more she realized that our capacity for explanations needed to be studied carefully. Our drive for explanation itself needed explanation. For instance, there are times when this drive can make us curious, help us discover new things, but there are other times when our hunger for a simple story can make us leap to conclusions and become less curious.

Tania Lombrozo: An everyday example of this that might be familiar to people is the experience of interviewing someone for a position. When we interview people, often I think even without realizing it, we construct a whole story about the kind of person this is and how they're going to do in the job and how they fit into what we're looking for. And that's one kind of evidence that we might use for deciding who to hire. But then we also have things like their resume and their letters of reference. And perhaps we tend to over-rely on our own story that we construct and under-rely on these other sources of evidence that may or may not fit into our story so nicely.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is not just saying that explanations are sort of deductions we draw from the world. It's really saying that explanations are the way we actually see the world. We actually see the world through the explanations and models we build of the world.

Tania Lombrozo: One way to think about it is that explanations are the currency in which we understand things, representative of all sorts of information, but we need to do something with it. And the way we do something with it is to construct some sort of a model, an explanatory model, one that we find explanatorily satisfying. And that's what we use as a basis for thinking and reasoning.

Shankar Vedantam: Well, we'll talk soon about the experiments that you have conducted to analyze our capacity for explanation, but I want to start with a story that illustrates so much about our drive for explanation. You once drew a link between your daughter's personality and what you knew about her before she was born. Can you explain, Tania?

Tania Lombrozo: Sure. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I discovered around seven months into the pregnancy that she was breech. For those of you who haven't gone through this process and aren't familiar with it, that just basically means her head was up rather than down, and that's not where you want it to be before birth. And so being a good scientist, I did all sorts of research on how she might be able to turn around, the probability that you would turn around before birth and so on. But in fact, she was very comfortable in just the position she was and did not turn around prior to birth. This daughter is now 10 and we still joke that this illustrates her wonderful persistence and stubbornness. She's very steadfast in the best way that I think will make her an amazing adult and sometimes frustrating child. Of course, on some level I don't really think there is a connection between her having been in a breech position before she was born and her being a persistent and stubborn child later. But it's so tempting to draw these connections and to see these patterns and to try to make sense of what we observe now in terms of what we know about the past.

Shankar Vedantam: What I love about this is it shows how indiscriminate we are in coming up with explanations for things that otherwise feel inexplicable.

Tania Lombrozo: I think that's right. I think very often the world presents us with ambiguity. And what we do is we try to connect the dots in a way that tells a compelling narrative and that allows us to have a sense that there is order.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, we look at the great benefits and the great dangers that are contained in our drive to explain the world. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you were a kid, you've probably asked a very important question all the time.

Child Voice: Why? Why are there clothes? Why does water boil? Why do I pee?

Shankar Vedantam: If you're a grownup, you might still ask why, even though the questions might be different. Why is my colleague late? Why does my dog seem sad? Why is my neighbor more successful than I am? At Princeton University, psychologist Tania Lombrozo studies our powerful drive to understand what is happening to explain the world and what our search for explanations can reveal about us. Tania, your father was trained as an electrical engineer and during business trips to Japan, he would sometimes bring back mysterious, little electronic gifts for you to play with. Tell me what you did with them and the connection that you have made between that childhood experience and your research today as a scientist.

Tania Lombrozo: Well, my father had a rule when he came back with these mysterious gifts, which was that if my brother and I could figure out how they worked, we could keep them. This was a challenge because everything was in Japanese and often they were very unfamiliar. I remember one time he brought back something which we eventually discovered was an alarm clock, but it had a series of numbers on one side and numbers on the other side, and lots of little switches for each of the numbers. And so with the right combination of numbers, you could sort of specify what time you wanted it to sound.

Tania Lombrozo: And so what we had to do was basically look at the features of these artifacts, try to figure out what different buttons did. Think about why someone might have designed it in that particular way. What might it be for, given that it was designed in this particular way. And that sort of process of reverse engineering, of looking at something's behavior, what it looks like, how it behaves, and then trying to think backwards to what its function must be such that you can understand why it has those properties, that's very much what a psychologist does looking at human behavior, and then trying to figure out why the mind works the way it does.

Shankar Vedantam: Tania doesn't just do this with other people's minds. She does it on her own. For example, she once woke up in the middle of the night because she heard some mysterious sounds. Of course she did what any of us would do in that situation. She looked for an explanation.

Tania Lombrozo: This was when my daughter was probably around three and my mother was visiting. When I heard noise, I went outside of my bedroom door and I found my mother and my daughter sitting in the dark having a full-blown tea party with stuffed animals around the table and pretend to cake and so on. So I was very puzzled. I also know that my mother would prefer to be sleeping at 3:00 AM. So how had this happened? This seemed to be something that called out for explanation.

Shankar Vedantam: And what did you find out? What was behind it?

Tania Lombrozo: What I discovered was that my daughter had woken up and was very enthusiastic that her grandmother was visiting. She went straight downstairs to wake up my mother. And when my mother was woken up, she didn't think it was strange that it was dark because my daughter often woke up before the sun came up. So she just thought it was morning.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, you could just say at this point this is unacceptable. It's three o'clock in the morning, go back to bed. Send them both back to bed and go back to sleep. But in some ways that was inadequate for you. You actually wanted to know why they were there. It was important to you for you to find out. Explaining what happened is actually really important to knowing what the correct response is to the thing that you're seeing.

Tania Lombrozo: Absolutely. I think it's also very important to being able to anticipate when it will happen again, to being able to bring it about more or to prevent it depending on whether it's an outcome that we want or prefer to avoid. So I think that there's a lot we get out of an explanation for an event, especially when it involves people and concerns about responsibility and blame, then knowing exactly why someone acted the way they did is incredibly important.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier about the value that explanations provide us in terms of producing a world that is more predictable. Can you talk about this idea a little more? I'm thinking about the world of sports. If you understand the strategy an opponent is using, not just sort of responding to whatever your opponent is doing in the moment, it becomes much easier to compete and much easier to win.

Tania Lombrozo: That's a great example. I will confess I do not understand the world of sports, so I will take your word for it, but that makes sense. But I think it's generally the case. I mean, if you think about trying to anticipate somebody's behavior, perhaps you have an arch-nemesis and you're trying to anticipate their next move. If you understand what's motivating them, why are they acting the way they are, what's their goal, if you have answers to those questions, you'll be in a much better position to anticipate what they're going to do and potentially to prevent it.

Shankar Vedantam: And as I was reading your work, I was realizing that we don't just benefit from the explanations that we discover. We benefit from the explanations of many human beings who came before us. I mean, you might even argue that culture is a mechanism to transmit explanations from one generation to the next.

Tania Lombrozo: Absolutely. I think typically when we think about learning from explanations, what we have in mind is learning from the explanations that we receive from other people or from books. I think it's perhaps less recognized but equally important that we also learn by trying to get explanations ourselves. Sometimes that motivates us to get evidence and make new observations. But sometimes we can learn something new just by trying to explain to ourselves. There's a phenomenon called the self-explanation effect that I think most people have probably experienced. And that's the experience of coming to understand something better as a result of trying to explain it to yourself or to somebody else. Part of what's sort of mysterious and amazing about the phenomenon is that that's a kind of learning that occurs even though you're not getting new information from anybody else or from the external world. You're just rearranging and scrutinizing what's already in your head. And in the course of doing that, you can sometimes have one of these "aha" moments and come to realize that you understand something better, or sometimes come to realize that you thought you understood something but there's actually an important gap in your knowledge that you need to fill.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the reasons for this is something called the illusion of explanatory depth, and you hinted at this just a second ago. Can you unpack what that idea is, Tania?

Tania Lombrozo: Yeah, absolutely. Many of us feel like we understand how a lot of the devices in our everyday life work. We understand how a bicycle works. We understand how a microwave works. About how a zipper works, and so on. If you ask people, they'll typically say, "Yeah, I understand how a zipper works." And then you say, "Okay, can you please explain it?" And what happens when people actually try to explain something like how a zipper works is they start to appreciate all of the ways in which maybe they really don't have the full story of how a zipper works. And the process of trying to generate a good explanation helps us appreciate that we're really falling short.

Shankar Vedantam: I've seen experiments where you ask people to draw a bicycle, for example, and people will draw a chain that connects the two wheels of the bicycle together, which of course would make the bicycle impossible to actually ride. And you realize very quickly that even when it comes to extremely basic things, we might actually not understand very well how they work, but it actually requires us to be put on the spot to be able to reveal this gap in our knowledge.

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. Psychologists sometimes talk about what's called metacognition, which is sort of our cognition about our own cognition. This is the case where our metacognition is often wrong. We often think we know something that we actually don't know. And in the process of trying to explain it, we can get better calibrated and appreciate what we do and we don't know. I think that's one of the reasons trying to explain can be really powerful, but I think in other cases it can also actually help you not just recognize gaps but even fill them.

Shankar Vedantam: Tania cites a scene from the PBS TV series, Beecham House. It's set in India in the late 18th century.

Tania Lombrozo: An English man has been accused of having stolen from the emperor and he's put in a jail cell. And so he's in his jail cell trying to explain to himself how this happened. He's thinking to himself, who could have betrayed me? Why would they have betrayed me? How could the emperor have known where the stolen property was in my house, and so on. And from that jail cell, he doesn't get any new information. He doesn't have any new piece of evidence. And yet just thinking it through and thinking about all of the pieces of evidence he already had allows him to have the "aha" moment where he realizes who has betrayed him.

Shankar Vedantam: With this new insight, the Englishman confronts the true perpetrator of the crime.

Tom Bateman, speaking as John Beecham: I have arrived at one simple question, who had the most to gain? I realize now you did not meet my mother by chance at the docks in Calcutta. You were there by design. You knew exactly where she was going and when she would leave. You'd probably be monitoring her for months.

Tania Lombrozo: Sometimes we learn by getting new evidence or by asking other people. But sometimes we learn just by thinking about things in the right way. It's a process I refer to as learning by thinking. In this case, learning by trying to explain to yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: Some time ago on Hidden Brain, we spoke with the researcher Vera Tobin. She studies the techniques that storytellers use to take advantage of our cognitive systems. She said something that is very close to what you just told me a second ago. I want to play you a short clip of what she said.

Vera Tobin: What a story can do for you is construct this insight experience where you feel not that something has blindsided you or that you were just taken by surprise, but this experience that feels as if you have a real "aha" moment about how things fit together. And that is something that humans like a lot.

Shankar Vedantam: Two things that jump out at me when I hear Vera say that, Tania, is that storytellers are doing two things. One, they're actually constructing a story that has mystery and confusion and uncertainty built into it. And because we find those things aversive, it actually serves as a hook that keeps us listening, keeps us watching, keeps us reading. And then when the explanation is provided, it provides us with this burst of pleasure because we suddenly understand that the mystery is resolved, the puzzle is solved.

Tania Lombrozo: Yes. I love that example. And I would also add that science can often have that character as well. So in the case of a good story, there's an author crafting the story to have just the right form. But I think part of what makes science very satisfying is that some of the time I get that experience as well of having all of these clues and then getting the satisfying theory that makes all of those clues fit together in a way that makes sense.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk a moment about situations where explanations do not feel pleasurable. We've all had the experience of watching a magic trick and being amazed, and then discovering the explanation behind the trick. And invariably, this does not produce wonder but it produces disappointment. Something that in fact appeared wondrous turns out to be pedestrian. What do you think this reveals about the explanatory system in the brain?

Tania Lombrozo: One thing that I think it tells us is that there might be cases where we actually find uncertainty and mystery and awe somewhat pleasurable. If you think about an emotion like awe, it has possibly a kind of negative tinge. It can be kind of scary to have uncertainty and not understand something. But there's also a way in which it can be pleasurable. It tells us there's something to learn here. Here's something that's worth paying attention to. So when we have something that seems to defy the laws of physics or the laws of probability and it turns out it was just something completely mundane, I think there's a violation between our sense that there was something really amazing to be learned or discovered. And then the reality that actually it was just business as usual. One thing that we find is that people are more curious about the answers to questions about science than about religion. They think that we should answer science questions more than we should answer questions about religion. If I ask you, "Why is rust red?" And I say, "It's a mystery." That just seems wrong. But if I say, "Why does God exist?" "It's a mystery." "Why did Jesus walk on water?" "It's a mystery." For a lot of questions about religion, it's not just that we don't know. It's that we seem to be much more comfortable with the idea that we can't know and perhaps that we shouldn't know.

Shankar Vedantam: What do you think spells the difference? Why is it that for some things, we actually think that it's unacceptable that you tell me that there's no answer to this. And for other things, I feel like it's unacceptable if you tell me that there is an answer to it.

Tania Lombrozo: I think there's a few factors in play. I think one of them is that our beliefs play all sorts of different kinds of roles for us. One reason that we have the beliefs that we do and that we aspire to have particular kinds of beliefs is because we want to be accurate and represent the world in a way that will give us a model that allows us to predict what will happen. But our beliefs also play important social roles, or they play important moral roles. They play important personal roles. And I think sometimes in a case like religion or relationships to particular people or institutions, demanding an explanation might compete with other kinds of goals related to relationships and trust. We also have evidence that there are some cases where people are uncomfortable with the idea that science could fully explain the human mind. For example, people seem to in general be very comfortable thinking that science could explain why we forget things or how stereo vision works or how motor control works. But they're much less comfortable with the idea that science could explain our religious beliefs or our moral behavior or spiritual experience or appreciation for art. So all of these phenomena are phenomena that we have a rich internal experience that we feel like we have special access to as the person who is experiencing them. And for those phenomena, it also seems like people think there might be a sort of threat to the idea that somebody outside of our own mind who isn't having those rich personal experiences could provide a full explanation.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, tell me what you think of this hypothesis that part of what we're doing when we're trying to explain things is we're trying to make the outside world comprehensible to the inside world. But there are things on the inside world that already feel comprehensible to us. And for those things, an explanation from the outside does not feel welcome but it actually feels like an intrusion.

Tania Lombrozo: I think that's a really interesting idea. As a psychologist, of course, I want to resist that because my job is precisely explaining the internal world. But I think what you described is capturing something of many people's experiences. Sometimes people talk about the idea that we are intuitive dualists, like Descartes. We think of the mind as somehow fundamentally separate from the body. And so part of what's going on in some of these cases, I think, is that by trying to give an external or scientific explanation to our internal experience, we are crossing those levels in an uncomfortable way. We're trying to explain aspects of the mental by appeal to aspects of the biological or the physical.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how our drive for explanations can sometimes lead to disaster. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Human beings seem to possess an innate drive to come up with explanations for things. This drive makes us curious, helps us discover things. But as much as our capacity for explanation is impressive and useful, psychologist Tania Lombrozo has also found there are important ways in which this drive can lead us astray. Tania, some years ago, researchers from the University of Wisconsin had kids listen to a children's story. It was from the series, Clifford the Big Red Dog. One day, Clifford and his friends discovered a new dog who wants to play with them, but this dog is different from them in an important way. I want to play you a short clip from the television version of the story.

Clifford, voiced by John Ritter: What a nice guy.

T-Bone, voiced by Kel Mitchell: He's only got three legs, Clifford!

Clifford, voiced by John Ritter: Oh my gosh!

Cleo, voiced by Cree Summer: What should we do, Clifford? He want to play with us.

Clifford, voiced by John Ritter: So? Let's play.

Cleo, voiced by Cree Summer: I don't know.

Shankar Vedantam: Tania, what did the research study ask and what did it find?

Tania Lombrozo: In this study, people were interested in children's ability to extract the moral or the lesson of the story. And as you can probably imagine in this case with Clifford and the three-legged dog, part of what the story was going for was a general lesson about accepting others who might be different from ourselves, about inclusion and so on. But in fact, overwhelmingly when children were asked about the lesson, they drew a blank or they drew a much, much more specific lesson or moral like you should be nice to three-legged dogs.

Shankar Vedantam: Which is not a completely unreasonable conclusion to draw.

Tania Lombrozo: Absolutely not. I think it makes enormous sense. But of course, if that's the lesson you draw from it, you might wonder about the value of reading Aesop's Fables and other lessons to our children if all they're learning about is how you should act towards tortoises and hares. A lot of what we want is for them to extract some more general lesson.

Shankar Vedantam: To put this another way, you can have different levels of explanations. Sometimes your explanation might be correct in a literal sense but you miss the larger meaning. Other times we may focus too much on the big picture. Think about what happens when the fire alarm goes off in your office. Instead of drawing the simple explanation that something is wrong and you should evacuate the building, you might sit around and wait for a bigger explanation. Is this a real emergency, a drill?

Tania Lombrozo: I think we often face a trade-off between gathering all of the information and learning as much as possible versus acting in a way that's efficient. And we have to decide when we're going to decide that we have enough information and just act. In the case that you just described, there are a couple of different types of errors that you could make and those errors have very different kinds of costs. One kind of error that you could make is failing to learn something that might've been valuable, like whether or not the fire alarm was caused by microwave popcorn being left too long or by something else. But another kind of error that you might make is spending too much time trying to figure out what happened in not leaving the building. And that is a very costly error. So in that kind of case, it seems like you'd probably be making a mistake to err on the side of trying to learn extra rather than act safely or cautiously. But there's going to be other cases where the cost of failing to learn is the cost that you might want to try to avoid.

Shankar Vedantam: You also found in other studies that people dislike explanations that are generally very good but that have certain exceptions to the rule.

Tania Lombrozo: It seems like one thing that we like in an explanation is that it be broad and exception-less. And so one thing that might happen is that if you have an explanation that only accounts for why your friend acts the way they do on Monday and Tuesday and Thursday but not on Wednesday, you're going to think, "I'm missing something. That can't be the whole story." There's something unsatisfying about that and you're going to keep looking until you find something that accounts for more of your evidence.

Shankar Vedantam: But I'm also thinking about how this could actually affect us adversely, which is that the real world in fact is a messy place and there are times when a very good rule might actually explain 80% of a phenomenon, that could be an excellent rule. But the fact that it has 20% of exceptions to that rule, if we start to rule those out as good explanations, we might rule out things that could actually be very useful.

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. One danger of trying to look for a good explanation is that the world is not always well behaved as you point out. Sometimes the world doesn't provide good explanations. Sometimes things just are coincidences or are chants or don't have elegant explanations. So we've found in our research that sometimes that can be a good thing because people persist in trying to find a good explanation. And in the course of doing that, they might discover important things about the world. But other times, it might lead them to perseverate in trying to find a good explanation when there's just none to be had.

Shankar Vedantam: And if you buy the idea that explanations in some ways provide us with pleasure, there is also potentially a risk here because it could be that some explanations in fact are more pleasurable than others. In fact, they feel like they fit better. They're more enjoyable to contemplate. And if we are drawn to explanations in part because we derive pleasure from them, it's quite likely that from time to time, we're going to draw the conclusion that the pleasurable explanation is the right explanation when in fact it's not.

Tania Lombrozo: I think that's right. So in my own work, I sometimes talk about explanatory virtues, which are properties like simplicity that make an explanation good and that often are things that we should be seeking in science and in everyday life. But we also fall prey to explanatory vices, characteristics of explanations that are seductive and that draw us in but maybe aren't really good guides to how we ought to think about the world.

Shankar Vedantam: How does this body of work play out when it comes to things like polarization and partisanship?

Tania Lombrozo: Well, I think explanation is sort of a funny process in that it can lead to two very diametrically opposed consequences. Typically when we try to explain something, we're trying to accommodate it in the context of what we already believe. Part of what's going to make it simple and compelling is that it fits in with the assumptions that we're already working with. But sometimes trying to explain something might lead us to realize an inadequacy in our current theorizing. And so it might be the impetus for us to revise our beliefs. And you sometimes see this in the history of science. So explanation on the one hand can be a way to assimilate everything in the context of what you already believe and it can also sometimes be a mechanism to spark belief, revision and change. And I think what we see in the case of politics is that overwhelmingly, it ends up being a force that allows us to assimilate things in the context of what we already believe because often political beliefs are deeply ingrained, tied to people's identities, and so on. I do think that explanation does have the potential to lead us to change our beliefs and not just to confirm the beliefs that we already have. But I think the political discourse we see right now makes it difficult for those kinds of conditions to obtain.

Shankar Vedantam: It's also the case that when we have strong views about something and we see a disconfirming piece of evidence that comes in, in some ways it's easier to sort of find a way to discount the disconfirming piece of evidence than to revise the model that we have built up, especially if that model has been built up over time and with effort. This is why it's so hard not just in politics but in science as well to let go of pet theories. You've spent 20 years developing a theory, it's incredibly painful to let that theory go because some new fact has just arisen.

Tania Lombrozo: Absolutely. Often this is referred to as explaining away. So you see a discrepant observation and it's easy to think, "Oh, well, there must have been a mistake with the microscope that day or somebody must've made a mistake copying down that number." So we find an alternative explanation that doesn't threaten our core beliefs in that case.

Shankar Vedantam: And I can see this happening all the time in politics. You have a president whom you don't like, there's nothing that the president can do that can possibly make you think that this was a good decision because you're filtering everything now through the model that basically says this president is an abomination.

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. And you also see it in the way that we think about social groups and stereotypes. If you come across an individual who violates your views about a particular stereotype, you could revise the stereotype, but often that's not what people do. Often what people do is say, "Oh, well, this person doesn't fit the stereotype for such and such reason." They come up with an explanation for why that person is an exception. And doing that then allows them to maintain the belief they had about the general group and to preserve the stereotype.

Shankar Vedantam: You've also cited research about how our drive for explanation and storytelling works in the criminal justice system. Can you talk about that research about how storytelling and explanations shape the practice of justice?

Tania Lombrozo: Sure. There was a really influential model of juror decision-making called the story model that was introduced by Pennington and Hastie. And their idea was that if you think about what a juror is doing as they have evidence presented to them, as they hear testimony, as they hear the prosecution and the defense and so on is trying to construct something like a mental model that's a story of what happened. And the way people decide whether they're going to convict or not is by evaluating which story is better, which does a better job of accounting for all of the evidence. That may sound sort of innocuous but it leads to some problematic consequences. One of them is that if you change the order in which people hear testimony such that it makes it easier or harder to construct the story that's consistent with the prosecution, for example, that will affect how likely it is the participants think that that story is the right one.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, both the defense and the prosecution hypothetically are presenting the same facts but one of them is constructing the story of the facts better than the other one, we're more likely to believe the side that presents the better story.

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. And in this case, what makes it a better story is just the fact that it was presented in the right temporal order in which the events unfolded so that it was easier to construct that story in your mind.

Shankar Vedantam: On September 11, 2016, this was 15 years after the World Trade Center attack, someone took a photo of the 9/11 Memorial tribute in light. Two very powerful blue lights representing the twin towers were beamed into the sky. And at the top, there appeared to be a strange, glowing figure. I want to play you a short news clip.

News Clip: Two powerful lights soar into the air as a tribute to lives lost on 9/11. But look closer, there's an image atop the lights. The photo is now a worldwide sensation. Is this a trick of the light, Jesus, an angel, a cross? Beautiful, amazing.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a moment, Tania, about the role that some explanations might play in providing us with, in some ways an emotional defense system or a way of sort of reconciling ourselves to things that might otherwise be very painful to contemplate?

Tania Lombrozo: There is some evidence that when people feel uncertainty or a lack of control in their own lives, one response that they might have is to try to latch on to their ideology or an explanatory framework that gives them a sense of order in the world. And for some people, that might be religion. For other people, it might be a sense that the government is a very stable, powerful force that can provide order. It could be the idea that science gives us a very orderly picture of the world. But it does seem like the idea that there is structure and order and regularity is something that we're drawn to in the face of moments that seem anxiety provoking and to suggest that maybe the world is just random in a very uncomfortable way.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking about the study that Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky did several years ago. They induced a feeling of a lack of control among volunteers. They found that compared to a control group, volunteers who experienced a lack of control showed increased pattern recognition in noise. So in other words, when they were shown like the static on a television screen, for example, they thought that they could see images in the television screen or when they were shown sort of random gyrations in the stock market, they felt like they could detect patterns in what was going on. And Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky thought that there was some connection between these two things that in the presence of a feeling of a lack of control, we actually seek to impose control by seeing patterns where none exist. Can you talk about how this phenomenon connected to your work is potentially behind some of the conspiracy theories we see circulating in the world today?

Tania Lombrozo: One idea, and I will confess this is somewhat speculative, but you might think of conspiracy theories as an error of overexplaining. Many conspiracy theories have the characteristic that they take lots of observations that might all have independent explanations, that might sometimes be partially due to chance, and they connect them all to one underlying individual or group that has a particular intention and is carrying out that intention. And so that's a case where maybe there is no satisfying explanation for why these five independent observations came to be and how they unfolded exactly the way they do, but the conspiracy theorists impose one. And certainly I think you see that these kinds of beliefs can be heightened in the context of uncertainty, lack of power, and so on.

Shankar Vedantam: When you think about the conspiracy theory that the United States government was behind the 9/11 attacks for example, the complexity of what would be involved in having a conspiracy like that actually work, I mean, I live and work in Washington and I know that you can't tell anything to a group of three people in Washington and expect it to be kept a secret for very long. Washington is full of leaks. And so the idea that hundreds of thousands of people across the federal government could have kept this massive secret is just completely implausible. But of course, that's precisely the conspiracy theory that circulated very widely after the 9/11 attacks and was embraced by large numbers of people around the world.

Tania Lombrozo: I think that's an interesting example because it illustrates a point that we spoke about before that there's many different ways in which you might think that an explanation is simple or complex. In one way, that conspiracy theory is extremely complicated because all of the details of how the government's plan would have been carried out and carried out effectively in a way that's consistent with the fact that we didn't have leaks and so on, that's all extremely complicated. But the part that's very simple is that many outcomes are all attributed to one underlying entity, in this case an organization rather than a single person, with a particular intention. And so in that sense, it might be a relatively simple explanation in that it reduces many observations to something that's sort of a simple root cause even though the details of how that root cause manifests in what we observed is extremely complicated.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier in our conversation about the power of explaining in helping us understand things, that it actually could be a mechanism for learning. And you've talked before about how we can utilize this in some ways to combat some of our biases. So it is the case that we often seek explanations that match our preexisting views. But how can we use explanations to combat this bias, Tania?

Tania Lombrozo: I think there's a few ways in which explanation can help us. One way it can help us relates to a previous example. We talked about the case where children will draw the lesson from a story that we should be kind to three-legged dogs, rather than realizing that there's something more general to be learned there. What we found in a study looking at cases like that is that just prompting someone to explain different parts of the story, why the characters acted the way they did, why something was the right or wrong thing to do, that can lead young children to re-represent the story such that they realize it's not just about a three-legged dog, but maybe more generally a story about social inclusion. So that's an example of explaining leading us to change the way we're representing something in a way that helps us appreciate something at a broader level of obstruction.

Shankar Vedantam: And it's interesting when it comes to something like fighting conspiracy theories, we really don't practice what you just suggested. We often believe the way to combat a conspiracy theory is to throw evidence against it. But really the more effective approach might well be to ask the person with a conspiracy theory to actually explain it in depth to us and to have them in some ways discover the gaps in their own beliefs that are surfaced by this illusion of explanatory depth.

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. In fact, there's some evidence in the political domain that asking people to explain policies, like how a particular tax policy would work for example, helps them to appreciate that maybe they don't understand it as well as they thought they did. And that can induce a kind of humility or an appreciation that you might not be in the best position to have a very firm perspective on that political issue and perhaps be more open-minded and willing to revise your beliefs.

Shankar Vedantam: There's been some work that shows that when we come up with explanations for things, we're more likely to actually believe those explanations. So in other words, if I'm in a debating tournament, for example, and I'm randomly assigned to make one case, I'm more likely to believe the case that I'm making. So genuinely the act of coming up with explanations and arguments prompts me to actually believe what it is that I'm arguing. And you and others have talked about the value of essentially if you want to debias yourself, one thing to do is to try and make arguments in favor of both sides. That the effort of coming up with an argument in favor of both sides allows you to see the virtue of different positions that you might not otherwise choose to do.

Tania Lombrozo: Absolutely. The strategy you just described is sometimes referred to as "consider the opposite," and it sounds very, very simple but it's also very powerful and very broadly applicable. And part of the reason it's so powerful is because it's not something that we tend to do spontaneously. So if you're asked to consider a particular view or coming up with an explanation for a particular observation, you tend not to spontaneously think, but how might I be wrong or what might some alternative perspectives be? But doing that can be a very powerful way to avoid some of the kinds of biases that you refer to.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if there have been times in your life where looking back, you realize that you leaped to the wrong conclusion or drew the wrong explanation. Have there been moments like that where you've looked back at and sort of said, "Uh-oh, I fell prey to the same things that I'm studying."

Tania Lombrozo: I can think of one example when I was a college student. It was my birthday and my boyfriend had planned what was supposed to be a nice dinner for me. And on the way to our dinner, he said, "Oh, you know what? I just need to get these books from the library. Do you mind if we just stop by and pick up these books? Here, you take these call numbers so that we're fast." My immediate temptation was to fit this into a frustrating pattern of having taken second place to immediate work concerns and so on. This was supposed to be my birthday. We shouldn't be doing this errand. And I very shortly discovered I had to revise this assessment because it turns out that my then boyfriend now husband had hidden my birthday presents throughout the library at Stanford University under different call numbers. And so, as I was walking around the library trying to get these books, I was discovering the hidden gifts hidden in the library.

Shankar Vedantam: What a lovely story. And I feel like this tells us something really important because of course the story that we're painting about explanations is not just a story about how we think about politics or how we think about science. But it's also about how we think about the people in our lives, our colleagues, our partners, our children, our parents. And so often we're drawing these very quick explanations about why they're doing what they're doing. And very often these conclusions are actually wrong and we really need to slow down and ask ourselves, how do I know what I think I know?

Tania Lombrozo: That's right. Yeah, absolutely. I think asking ourselves how we know what we think we know and thinking about alternative explanations are both very powerful tools for trying to overcome some of our tendencies to leap to conclusions and go with our familiar explanations.

Shankar Vedantam: Tania Lombrozo is a Psychologist and Director of the Concepts and Cognition Lab at Princeton University. Tania, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Tania Lombrozo: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero for this episode is a research paper published by Nick Chater and George Loewenstein. It was titled "The Under-Appreciated Drive for Sense-Making" and was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in 2016. I remember reading the paper with much excitement one weekend. I realized I had never given much thought to what lay beneath our drive to make sense of the world. The ideas in that paper helped lead me to Tania Lombrozo's remarkable body of research. For more Hidden Brain, subscribe to our weekly newsletter where we explore ideas related to this week's episode and share more about what we're working on, reading and discussing. Sign up at If you like today's show, please consider supporting us. Go to and click on support. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.


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