The power of narratives
In his 2019 book “Narrative Economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events”, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller highlights the two elements of what he means by narrative economics viz. “(1) the word-of-mouth contagion of ideas in the form of stories and (2) the efforts that people make to generate new contagious stories or to make stories more contagious.”
Put another way, narrative economics is the study of “how narrative contagion affects economic events.” Public beliefs affect major economic events. Economists are however reluctant to incorporate narratives in their studies because they are difficult to measure, sources can be hard to trace robustly, and so on. Shiller’s argument is that “economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics.”
“Narrative economics, the study of the viral spread of popular narratives that affect economic behaviour, can improve our ability to anticipate and prepare for economic events”, he asserts.” This makes sense. Most would agree that “contagious popular stories that spread through word of mouth, the news media, and social media,” increasingly drive the economy.
“An economic narrative is a contagious story that has the potential to change how people make economic decisions” like hiring a worker, launching a business venture, or investing in a “volatile speculative asset.” Sport events have been found to affect the economic confidence of the locales or countries where they are being held, for instance. Similarly, it has been found that “shark attacks at local beaches can affect votes for local incumbents, and background music in advertisements can have a strong effect on consumers.”
There is much that we can relate with from this background by Shiller, especially in light of the deluge of information – most of which are predominantly false and increasingly hard to detect as such – we are constantly being bombarded with in regard of the ravaging and ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Boring truths, fantastic lies
Truth is boring. As human beings, we are more easily drawn to magical stories; even when we know they are false. It is one of the reason why even when a retraction or correction of a false publication is made, it tends not to have as much resonance as the lie it seeks to refute. The costs of false popular narratives on lives and livelihoods are real and lasting.
What you choose to do about them depends on your station and the costs to you, however. If you are a celebrity, any popular narrative, whether negative or positive, can be economically rewarding. If you are a politician or a government, false narratives matter a great deal. And thus, you must do your utmost to change them to your truth; albeit you never quite succeed in doing so entirely.
As an individual, the knowledge about the potency of narratives might make you a little bit more relaxed. Because just like we are wired to connect with stories, we also desire new ones. Thus, every narrative is necessarily the casualty of time.
Take the case of the recent and still ongoing bizarre narrative about fifth generation mobile networks (5G) being the cause of Covid-19. There have been a number of fires at cellphone towers in the United Kingdom on the back of this popular view already. Such is the potency of the narrative that the Nigerian ministry of communications was forced to issue a press statement insisting it had not issued a 5G licence to any firm as feared by some after the narrative went “viral”.
But surely, when the circumstances and our infrastructural needs require 5G, there should not be any hesitation in doing so. Still, it is abundantly clear that in that event, a great deal of effort would be required to convince people it poses no real danger to their lives.
When the circumstances and our infrastructural needs require 5G, there should not be any hesitation in doing so. Still, it is abundantly clear that in that event, a great deal of effort would be required to convince people it poses no real danger to their lives
Beware of the dominant narrative
David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre in America, has been suffering a great deal of grief lately. To my mind, it is not justified. He is being criticized for daring to suggest another way to manage the Covid-19 pandemic; with less of the increasingly mounting economic costs of the current consensus containment measure of lockdowns.
The goal here is not to prove that he has a point or not; albeit considering how poor countries are probably ill-advisedly copying their rich counterparts without properly considering their own unique limitations, some of his suggestions resonate with me somewhat. Instead, what one seeks is to point out the importance of not being unduly swayed by the consensus or dominant narrative.
What Katz suggests is a middle course of sorts; a balancing of the health and economic costs of the measures to contain the pandemic. It does not matter whether he is right or wrong. The key point is that there is a danger that a narrative dominates at the expense of other potentially good or better ideas. We must keep questioning our decisions and ideas, reviewing them when there is new information, and if need be, changing them if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.
Take the case of the media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. If you ask a random person anywhere in the world today about the number of cases in his or her locale or country, he or she would probably quite easily tell you what the figure is. Try asking about the number of recoveries, I would be hugely surprised if the individual is able to say it without some thought. Actually, I could not readily tell you what the figure is myself; that is, even as I make a deliberate effort to track the number of recoveries.
Yes, transparency is crucial. But if anyone wants the data, they could go to a well-advertised portal for the information. What government officials and the media should focus more on should be recoveries. As human beings are wired for sensational stories, a fact the media is well aware of, it would take a deliberate effort to focus on more positive stories. Still, the authorities could definitely make the change.