Dug Campbell

Using Fiction to Simulate Decision-Making

One of the things that I wrestle with when it comes to choosing reading material is the balance between fiction and non-fiction. Over the past couple of years in particular, my focus has been almost exclusively on non-fiction. And whilst that has brought a huge number of benefits, that practice (enjoyable as it is) has meant that picking up fiction isn’t as relaxing as it could be. It feels as if there’s often a subconscious battle between ‘learning’ (expanding knowledge via non-fiction) and ‘consuming’ engaging stories.

For example, I’m currently reading what is generally accepted to be one of the finest novels of the twentieth century – but feel conflicted as I look at the vast piles of unread non-fiction that populate the room, each one representing an area that I’m fascinated to learn more about. After all, why buy a physical copy of any book unless it’s one that you believe you’ll likely want to revisit again in the future?

But listening to an old 2017 North Star podcast interview with Shane Parrish on a run today, it feels like as good a time as any to reconsider that distinction in my head. Shane runs Farnam Street, a blog I’ve been reading for a number of years now (highly recommended – if nothing else, check out this post on mental models).

When talking about fiction, a couple of things jumped out at me:-

1/ Reading fiction is the closest that you can come to seeing simulated decision-making in alternative worlds. 

You might not be choosing the circumstances or actions, but for the most part, you get to live through the outcomes vicariously – and the most powerful novels will often mirror the realities of the human condition, thus informing what might happen in a parallel (real) world.

2/ Acting like your heroes can help you to improve your own behaviour and outcomes.

This one is a little bit more fuzzy – but a concept that I’ve heard a number of people discuss recently is that when they’re facing a difficult decision or situation, they make a conscious decision to pick someone that they admire and ask themselves “What would [X] do in this situation?”. Interestingly, this can often put you into a more balanced frame of mind when taking action. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also goes part of the way to explain why ‘fake it til you make it’ actually does work at times.

On a related note, I’ve written recently in this blog about the need to read things that contradict your world views. As Shane puts it:

“A lot of people stop reading if they don’t agree with something. I think part of being an adult is being able to read something that you don’t agree with and being able to put yourself in different perspectives that allow you to see the problem from different angles.”

The reason is simple: the more angles you can view any problem from, the less chance you’ll have of suffering from blind spots. And blind spots are where bad decisions come from.

Whilst I’ve always understood the value of good stories, I need to work on reframing reading fiction as simply another form of learning. The evidence is clear that science fiction can not only predict but also inform the development of the future and there are many other benefits to having a healthy fiction habit (developing empathy for a start).

Feels like another good target for 2019.

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