The Pervasive Effect of Priors: Part Three

Last week’s marathon bombings got me thinking about how people form narratives about bad events, both big and small.

My partner Eric and I were traveling in Portugal in a rented car.  The car only took diesel fuel, and we had difficulty figuring out whether particular pumps dispensed diesel.   Eric tried to use one pump, which didn’t seem to fit.  We asked an attendant, who seemed quite surly.  He shoved the ill-fitting pump into the car.  About 20 minutes later, on the highway, the car stopped working.   The repair people who came to help us told us that the car had been filled with regular fuel.

Eric and I decided that the attendant had disliked us, perhaps because we were American, and had done this on purpose.  My sister heard this story; her take was that surely the attendant just made a mistake. She asked ‘don’t you prefer to think of it that way’?  Eric and I didn’t, but she did.

One suggestion that’s been made about the marathon bombings is that they could have been stopped given what the FBI knew or had reason to know about the elder brother.    Is this comforting—or not?  Do we prefer to think somebody knew enough, but didn’t act on their knowledge? Or would we prefer to think that it could not have been stopped?

My point is this: people form narratives to help them make sense of the world, which includes getting some form of ‘comfort.’    How we interpret evidence will be influenced by what sorts of narratives we are forming, as much as what sorts of narratives we are forming will be influenced by evidence.

And what sorts of narratives we are inclined to form will relate to our priors about what sort of world we live in, including what sort of people live in the world.   The narratives will also reflect what sort of world we prefer to live in, and what sort of world is easiest for us to navigate.  I would rather live in a world where I am disappointed sometimes when I think people are generally good than a world in which I always expect the worst.

But I also think I live in a world where people who are paid to do some very simple thing know how to do it – the alternative, of thinking some gas station employees might not know how to distinguish between two different types of gas pumps where both are commonly used, would make me feel I had to check for all sorts of things I take for granted, vastly complicating my daily life.  It is easier for me to think that there are a small number of people who might want to do some bad things to their customers.    But my sister formed a different narrative, for reasons of her own.

Returning to the issue of whether the marathon bombings could have been stopped:  I don’t know how much comfort I get that the FBI had the elder brother on its radar given that the brothers were able to pull off the bombing.  It will be interesting to see how people come to understand what happened.  “Facts” will matter, but people may hear the same facts, and spin quite-different narratives.

[My earlier posts in this series: Part One and Part Two.]

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Another example of what you’re describing is how people reacted in Tokyo right after the 2011 March 11 tsunami and Fukushima incident. We had little information then, but it struck most people as reasonable that TEPCO, the utility that runs the nuclear plant, couldn’t have reasonably prepared for a once-in-1,100-years tsunami. For a few days people had at least mild sympathy for them, and cooperated so enthusiastically with power reduction that rolling blackouts planned for March 18 were called off. Peoples’ immediate narrative was “shikata ga nai”, i.e. “it can’t be helped,” rather than “evil, lying, negligent corporation.” Though the narrative quickly flipped to the latter by the third week or so after the incident, as more information came out about the utility’s negligence and arrogance.

    Concerning the FBI, given the nature of politics in the US, there are so many different agendas people have for blaming government agencies that it seems unlikely an agency can avoid being blamed for any action or inaction. Maybe this is a sort of “ergodic theorem” of politics. (Even the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which you’d think would be pretty popular among Americans, has become controversial.) So the narrative probably isn’t created for the sake of providing comfort in the usual sense, but more like “aid and comfort” to some political faction.

    Of course, once the narrative is out there floating around, there is a question of whether you should feel comfort from it, as you suggest. But here I wonder whether “comfort” is too much a Gary Becker-style utilitarian concept — i.e., it assumes a narrative where everything you do is something that makes you feel better because otherwise, being rational, you wouldn’t do it.

    There may be several alternative explanations for priors, but at least one of them could be fear, arising from terrible experiences or traumas in the past. E.g., is a combat veteran who comes home from someplace like Viet Nam or Afghanistan and suspects that certain children he encounters are carrying concealed weapons “comforted” by this narrative? Is someone who as a child was knocked down in the road by a dog with bared teeth while a car was heading her way “comforted” by her prior that dogs can be aggressive or at least violent? While it’s plausible that people have priors as you describe, why they have their particular priors may be more complex, and less rational, than you consider here.

    That might even apply to the FBI-messed-up-again story, where the narrative might get traction because some people fear that they’re unprotected. (Personally, I’m agnostic about whether that is rational or irrational in the present case.) And the narrative might appeal to different people for different reasons: we’ve probably all met some people who are comforted by the orderliness of a world in which there is someone is to blame for each bad thing. But if fear is the relevant prior here for some segment of the population, no doubt there are other folks who would be happy to exploit that fear for their own political advantage.

  2. Claire Hill says:

    Thanks for this! “Comfort” is just meant as shorthand- it has connotations that can be misleading. What I meant is this: One wants ‘to be able to move on’ without upending one’s world view. A person who thinks of himself as unemployable and then gets a job may believe that he’ll surely get fired any moment…and may even do things to bring that about, perhaps subconsciously–in part because the new state (being employed) feels unfamiliar and ‘uncomfortable.’

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I still think there’s something Becker-ish in that description, if we assume that what’s wanted is not to upend one’s world-view. Maybe this is another example of a prior: we (or at least, Americans) construct narratives on the premise that (i) if you really want to do something, you can, and (ii) whatever you do, in fact, do or whatever happens to you is something you wanted to do or have happen to you — or at least you wanted something else more (like holding onto your world-view) than to get off your butt and do what it would have taken to avoid the bad thing that hit you.

    Certainly there are some people who sabotage things for themselves because of emotional mishugas, as in the example you cite. But sometimes, too, Bad Things Happen to Good People, as a pop spirituality book has it. It may be pertinent to note that although the book was originally published in 1981, it was #1,704 on Amazon as I was writing this. Today especially, lots of people who are employed or even newly-hired may fear that they can get fired at any minute — and that would be a reasonable prior, for reasons having nothing to do with their own unconscious desire for, or expectation of, discomfort, or indeed their world-view at all.

  4. Michael says:

    I’m thinking the attendant didn’t care.

    How did he know you were Americans? Why would he ‘work’ to make you worse off. Most people are lazy. The brief joy from knowing you’re screwed isn’t that good. Better joy is found in correcting your mistake, and laughing at your ignorance.