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Being wrong — and what it means for stories May 18, 2011

Posted by Amy in Storytelling.
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The coffee in question.

Every once in a while, I’m wrong about something. I know you probably don’t believe me, so I’ve even dredged up an example.

I accidentally took another customer’s latte at a coffee shop recently, then insisted it hadn’t happened when my friend pointed it out. In the brief moment between seizing the paper cup realizing my wrongness, I really had it all: An inflated sense of rightness and a cup of coffee that tasted about 200 percent better than anything I’d ever order. (Soy milk? That sounds pretty expensive. Could you substitute water instead?)

Writer Kathryn Schulz has made a career out of studying that kind of resilient indignation — wrongness, if you will. Humans, she says, suffer from “error blindness.” Schulz recently gave a TED talk about the nature of human error that struck me as especially poignant.

Schulz, a journalist by background, had something interesting to say about how our inherent tendency to be wrong effects how we construct and interpret stories. Wrongness, she said, is part of the reason plot twists and literary red herrings are so effective in stories — it’s the pattern we go through in our own lives without realizing what’s happening.

“When it comes to stories, we love being wrong,” she says. “Our stories are like this because our lives are like this. We think the one thing happens, and something else happens instead.”

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