Making up Stories

When confronted with uncomfortable information that contradicts their view of reality, many people will make up the strangest "stories" to preserve their existing worldview. Why is this so?

"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves." —Eric Hoffer

I have noticed something about how some people treat beliefs which are personally important to them. When faced with uncomfortable facts, they do what I call “making up stories.”

I don’t mean they lie. Or rather they do, but they’re lying to themselves, and in a very particular way.

Some examples: About seven years ago, I was taking a course in the Polish city of Wroclaw. While there, I shared an apartment with an Englishman who had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

This fellow was convinced of every fashionable environmental catastrophe, including, of course, global warming.

I am skeptical about man-caused global warming for reasons not relevant here. In the course of our discussions, I mentioned that when I was working to launch a new college of science in Poland, I had come to know quite a few members of the Polish Academy of Science in the departments of chemistry, physics, paleobiology, etc.

I told him that not one of these world-class scientists believed in man-caused global warming.

He replied, “That’s because their jobs depend on defending the oil companies and denying global warming.”

To begin with, that's not true. On the contrary, the Polish government at the time had no concerns about global warming. They had too many real problems to deal with. And he was a stranger to Poland who couldn’t have known one way or the other.

He had answered a claim with the circumstantial ad hominem logical fallacy — which a philosophy student should have known right away.

Later, I realized that he was doing more than just committing a logical fallacy. He was making up stories.

Another: In an email exchange with me, a Marxist acquaintance referred to something as being “right-wing Nazi” in nature.

I replied to him: “Nazism is left-wing. ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’ doesn’t even remotely sound like a right-wing trope.”  (The word “Nazi” comes from Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, commonly abbreviated NSDAP.)

He decried this statement as right-wing propaganda. I pointed out that it is not a matter of political opinion, but established historical fact. Nazism was considered “leftist” at the time of its founding, by its founders, and only “right” of the further-left communists.

I added parenthetically that my wife was taught this as a schoolgirl in Poland.

He immediately suggested my wife probably had a high school teacher who was a holdover from the Solidarity resistance and wanted to discredit the old regime, etc. He’d never been to Poland and had met my wife only briefly.

Making up stories.

One more example: In my newsroom not long ago, I brought up on my computer screen a picture of President Obama shaking the Emperor of Japan's hand and bowing low.

I showed this to a colleague and said that our president had really stepped in it again, after the flap about bowing submissively to the King of Saudi Arabia, then and treating the Queen of England with undiplomatic familiarity.

“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.

I pointed out that American presidents — heck, American citizens — do not bow in submission to any foreign monarchs. There are long-established diplomatic courtesies appropriate for citizens of a free country, which show respect for but not submission to foreign monarchs — courtesies our president entirely omitted when meeting Queen Elizabeth II.

Furthermore, I said, in Japan bowing has gradations and subtleties indicating relative status, that non-Japanese seldom get right. Foreigners doing business in the country are generally advised not to try.

She replied, “Well maybe he’s creating a new custom, blending the customs of America and Japan.”

Making up stories.

Notice what these have in common. One, people who do this are usually pretty intelligent. You have to be, to think that fast.

What they did was create an elaborate explanation without reflection, on the spot, to explain away something that threatened cherished beliefs. And they did it with no knowledge-base to reach a rational conclusion. They weren’t attempting to reach a conclusion; they were making up stories.

For a long time I looked for a technical description for this phenomenon, and experimented with terms like “cognitive dissonance something-or-other.”

Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was making up stories. There is a perfectly simple word for this. We don’t like to use that word, especially about people we may like, because it’s ugly.

That word is “cowardice.”

More specifically, intellectual cowardice, as opposed to physical cowardice. Physical courage seems to be far more common than intellectual courage, and isn't that odd? Having to reexamine cherished beliefs, or being mocked and ostracized for your opinions, is unpleasant. But not nearly as unpleasant as torture or a violent death.

Many intelligent people tie themselves in intellectual knots attempting to justify absurdities, even when their conclusions are counterproductive, dangerous, or life-threatening. I am certainly not the first to point out the adherents of environmentalism, leftism, and the Cult of the One often behave like followers of a particularly odious religious fundamentalism. No matter what economic or humanitarian disasters their plans result in, they never question the essential rightness of their cause.

So why would any intelligent person persist in believing what experience proves is antithetical to their high-minded goals?

I think the answer is that intellectuals often feel a need to deal with a scary reality by embracing a TOE — a “Theory of Everything,” a perfect model of reality, which explains everything in all cases and leaves no room for doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity. I think we’d all like one of those.

Unfortunately, you can’t have one. Some of us realize this, others spend their lives denying it.

A theoretical model is just that — a model, an abstraction of reality, which does not, can not, contain the whole of reality. It only contains those parts of reality relevant to the purpose the model is designed to illustrate.

A philosophical/scientific model, like a model airplane, cannot perfectly reflect reality. That would be the classic logical contradiction of “the class of all classes that includes itself.” A model airplane true to reality in all respects, would be an airplane.

However successfully our models reflect reality, we have to live with the fact there will always be lurking ambiguities, uncertainties, scary facts, and things we just don’t know. That can be terrifying.

The way too many people react when confronted by something that pokes a hole in their comforting beliefs, is to attempt to patch the hole. By making up stories.

Stephen W. Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at

15 comments from readers  

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I think the author is right in the general case and I find it's impossible to break through these barriers until the individual encounters a compelling question they need to answer. Sadly. it's not triggered as a matter of principle and that is a character issue.

At a detail level, when I was doing business in Japan for Digital Equipment Corp, we were given cultural awareness training and I learned useful ideas that served me well. The point was effective communication where intention is understood. That involved behaving in an understandable manner and interpreting their behavior in their context, not mine. When in Rome...

For example, I learned:
- "That would be difficult..." means no, since saying no is viewed as rude. We politely said no however.
- A small bowing gesture upon greeting is not treated as subservience, but rather a gesture of respect - like in our culture saying the throw away phrase "How are you?" It reflects concern but we know it's not meant literally. We also shook hands. And we exchanged business cards following their protocol for respect by looking at it for a moment rather than just sticking it in a pocket.
- They also listened better to all sides of an issue rather than reacting with a preconceived answer when we were making mutually beneficial business or engineering decisions. This was a good example for US management.
- And we were taught many other cross-culture communication issues, some of which were a lot less benign or positive.

On TOE and the use of the work "perfect" (or perfectly), I find that most reasonable people can understand that perfect implies the omniscience fallacy. But as you might expect, they can't retain from one conversation to subsequent one.
A very timely article with a solid premise. What kept the rating from being higher is that I wanted to hear about a broader cross-section of examples, and perhaps a cooler and more technical label to the identified phenomenon. I do appreciate, however, the eventual label: cowardice ... intellectual cowardice, and would have liked to see this part developed more. My reason is that I, too, have committed this dreadful and abominable behaviour! I would like to learn about any tools or tricks that Stephen may have come across in order to guard against even small infractions.
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This was an awesome article, one of the very best I have read on Atlasphere this year, Thank You.
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I'm so glad you broached this subject. I have been wondering about it too.

I see it a lot-- especially, as you noted, among the intelligent and highly educated. I try to stop myself when I see I'm going that route.

I have encountered this situation often and noticed that the "story" is often accompanied by raising of the voice and even getting in one's face.

I usually attempt to disarm the other party by maintaining my cool and saying something such as, "I didn't know that. Where did you get that information?" I then follow up with, "How do you know that is true? Did you verify it?"

Almost always, I get the response, "Well, everybody knows it's true."
Marlize V
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Great piece. I think we've all encountered that person, foe or friend, who behaves like this. I'm half-tempted to send this link to a few of them to see how they might respond. ;)
The author has an amazing observation in this article. People do, indeed, make up hypothetical "explanations" (stories) to force contrary evidence to fit their way of thinking. It is a form of cowardice as he says. New thnking requres courage to do the mental work needed to see where new evidence leads.

Another "story" is the skeptical view he gives voice to that all we have to help us understand reality are "models" and they can never actually be accurate about reality. That, too, is cowardice and a false story.

The work needed to have ideas that are accurate about aspects of the world in which we live is hard work. The chance for making mistakes is manifold and not all of them are taught in college-level courses on logical fallacies. Though, the self-refuting skepticism the author uses is included in such Freshman courses.

But, nature is not deliberately trying to hide from us and we do come into this world with cognitive equipment (our sense, brains and volitional control over the uses of our minds) that stood our ancestors well enough to live long enough to parent us. So, knowledge of our world is demonstrably possible and we re-learn what others have learned for much of our formative years.

Hard work though it is, philosophy does manange to find and ask and gather evidence to answer the most basic questions. Its questions are available to everyone and so is the evidence. So, having the courage to do the work, we can look at a philosophy, such as one written in plain English like Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and match each statement to the reality we live in to see how accurate it is.

No "stories" of skepticism needed.
Christopher B
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I have caught myself doing this sometimes. Like most tendencies, it takes a conscious effort to know human minds are prone to this and to guard against it.

Thank you, Mr. Browne, for writing this.
Mr. Browne gets off to a pretty good start by recognizing the age-old, jumping-to-conclusions problem and nails a key word in this phenomemon by bringing up "cowardice," but he ultimately commits the same error of skeptical cowardice by doubting that there can be a theory of everything (TOE) in philosophy that is accurate and portrays reality perfectly and correctly -- something that provides an epistemological understanding that prevents jumping to conclusions (making up stories) in all cases because one remains totally focused on reality and facts, and one has eliminated false preconceptions while knowing that the inductive method is the primary means of understanding and must be used in all instances of knowledge gathering.

That correct philosophical TOE is Objectivism, created by Ayn Rand. Any honest seeker of the truth (SOT) in every aspect of life will come across Rand's work by the time they are in their 20s in America and many countries. That SOT will see that Rand's comprehensive philosophical system is correct and begin the honest process of cleaning up preconceptions and becoming integrated.

The objective SOT will approach the world in fundamentals, knowing, for instance, that politicians have no right to discuss alleged global warming because it is a property-rights issue, not a political issue. There are no "lurking abiquities" in Objectivism.

Mr. Browne should know this and should've not jumped to conclusions about the alleged lack of perfection and efficacy in Objectivism.
May I add another possible explanation? Rampant narcissism, to-wit, "a pattern of behaviors which signify obsession with one's self and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition." Simply, the inability to accept ever being "wrong".

How often do your philosophical friends (including a few Objectivists), when challenged to justify one's position, come up with the most absurd explanations rather than admit the slightest degree of uncertainty or lack of provable knowledge?

My personal favorite? No matter the issue, when I play Devil's Advocate or use the Socratic method to elicit a hole in one friend's arguments, when he's out of retorts, he'll say, "oh, you'd even defend Hitler" thereby ending any possibility of rational discussion.

IMHO, almost hypnotic, wide-spread narcissism is why Christian and Islamic and other fundamentalists will take up the sword rather than admit, e.g., their early religious "facts" brainwashing could be wrong in the slightest.
Nice work, Mr. Browne. I say this because 1) the article was articulate and easy to understand, 2) you addressed a human frailty all of us are guilty of and 3) you helped explain why liberal thinking is driven by make-believe (my words, not yours), not careful thought. You've presented what I think is a new way of looking at the fallacy of liberal thought...I've never seen these ideas of yours written before. Thank you so very much for all the time and energy you committed to making these ideas come to life. I hope you'll write again on this theme.
Stephen, May I suggest an excellent book that analyzes precisely what you describe. It is "How We Know What Isn't So" by Thomas Gilovich.
Why people "lie" comes down to genetics.

Just as one inherits the genes for eye or hair color, genetic research has found that individuals also "inherit" the genetics for "fantasy, truth-telling, creativity (part of lying and religiosity)...and in counterpoint, also inherit the genetics for the curiosity, discovery, leading to logic and reason.

Brain blood flow studies at Rice University and elsewhere, found that those who state they are on the "Left" most often have an increased blood flow in the Limbic System (emotional part of the brain)...whereas those who identify with the GOP or Conservatives (non religious Conservatives)...have an increased blood flow in the Forebrain, which governs executive, cognitive functioning.

The conclusion is that one's political attitudes and the ability to "lie" or engage in nontruthful creative, fantasy-driven statements is genetic. And unfortunately, those with such neo-religious, fantasy-driven genetics...tend to marry and interbreed with others with such neurological deficits, which exacerbates and increased the gene pool loading for such mental disabilities.

Hopefully, there will be a DSM-IV-R label for such a mental illness and treatment for the Left's "feelers and emotors" in the near future. Our very safety, security, and financial health depends on it.
Oh looky, an article about evasion which never called it that. :-)

Rand did a lot of vivisection of the evasion phenomenon. In Obj-speak, it's the tool of a psycho-epistemology which willfully refuses to acknowledge the primacy of existence, and thereafter leeches its way through life on the (false) premise of the primacy of consciousness. The fact that those people literally invent arbitrary scenarios out of the thin air of their minds, and then actually try to introduce them as evidence in reality, is an unavoidable symptom. To them, reality comes from within.

That's how it became "true" that your professors feared the oil companies, your mother was a victim of history revision, Obama was inventing new customs, 9/11 was an inside job, God works in mysterious ways, that woman over there is a witch, and the Tea Party is racist.

I'd call it the difference between thinking and scheming.

With all that in mind, you're giving your people way too much credit by inventing the story that they're on a life-long quest for a "model of reality". You already know that reality is the one thing they are trying NOT to learn about, from models or otherwise. Their motivation is evasion, not comprehension. Evasion is a high-maintenance activity, and to engage in it regularly, one must already have a model of reality: "the primacy of consciousness", aka, "reality comes from within."

And just to beat a dead horse - because it was evil and it was fooling you and it really needed to die - sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "la la la la la" is not a "theory", and it's a wee bit too selective to encompass "everything".
"A philosophical/scientific model, like a model airplane, cannot perfectly reflect reality." Yes it can. It can perfectly reflect one (1) or more aspects of reality. Stephan's error is in assuming to be "perfect" a model must be exactly the same as, in all respects, the modeled. By it's very definition a model is NOT the modeled, but a representation in some aspects. One keeps in mind the differences, e.g., a prototype is exactly the same except for size.

"...ambiguities, uncertainties, scary facts, and things we just don't know" should not be terrifying but exciting challenges. Consider the alternative: We know everything. Would life be worth living?
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