The Narrative Fallacy

Below is a passage from an article on the Farnham Street Blog that nicely demonstrates the narrative fallacy in sports.

"We fall for narrative regularly and in a wide variety of contexts. Sports are the most obvious example: Try to recall the last time you watched a profile of a famous athlete — the rise from obscurity, the rags-to-riches story, the dream-turned-reality. How did ESPN portray the success of the athlete?

What might we be missing? The list is endless, but some combination of luck, opportunism, and timing must have played into Steven’s and any other NBA player's success. It is very difficult to understand cause-and-effect chains, and this is a simple example compared to a complex case like a war or an economic crisis, which would have had multiple causes working in a variety of directions and enough red herrings to make a proper analysis difficult.

If it was like most profiles, you'd most likely see some combination of the following: Parents or a coach that pushed him/her to strive for excellence; a natural gift for the sport, or at the very least, a strong inborn athleticism; an impactful life event and/or some form of adversity; and a hard work ethic.

The copy might read as follows,

It was clear from a young age that Steven was destined for greatness. He was taller than his whole class, had skills that none of his peers had, and a mother who never let him indulge laziness or sloth. Losing his father at a young age pushed him to work harder than ever, knowing he’d have to support his family. And once he met someone willing to tutor him, someone like Central High basketball coach Ed Johnson, the future was all but assured — Steven was going to be an NBA player come hell or high-water.


If you were to read this story about how a tall, strong, fast, skilled young man with good coaching and a hard work ethic came to dominate the NBA, would you stop for even a second to question that those were the total causes of his success? If you’re like most people, the answer is no. We hear about similar stories over and over again.

The problem is, these stories are subject to a deep narrative fallacy. Here’s why: think again about the supposed causes of Steven’s success — work ethic, great parents, strong coaching, a formative life event. How many young men in the United States alone have the exact same background and yet failed to achieve their dreams of NBA stardom? The question answers itself: there are probably thousands of them.

That’s the problem with narrative: it lures us into believing that we can explain the past through cause-and-effect when we hear a story that supports our prior beliefs. To take the case of our fictitious basketball player, we have been conditioned to believe that hard work, pushy parents, and coaches, and natural gifts lead to fame and success.

To be clear, many of these factors are contributive in important ways. There aren’t many short, slow guys with no work ethic and bad hand-eye coordination playing in the NBA. And passion goes a long way towards deserved success. But if it’s true that there are a thousand times as many similarly qualified men who do not end up playing professional basketball, then our diagnosis must be massively incomplete. There is no other sensible explanation."

The reason I wanted to highlight the narrative fallacy—other than to satisfy my personal fascination with psychological biases—is to free you from the idea that success always follows an explainable path. 

We tend to only hear the success stories that fit a nice, neat narrative. But that’s not how life works.

Life is random. Life is chaos. Life is chance.

There are so many aspects of our basketball lives that we don’t have control over—genetics, timing, randomness—and we often undervalue those things. We might do the very best we can to achieve our goals but fall short anyways. And that’s OK. 

It sounds cheesy, but giving your best effort is enough. If you can look yourself in the mirror and honestly say that you gave a great effort to reaching your full potential, that should be enough. Because as much as we try to explain the formula for success, it's not that simple.