Are we unreliable sources?

I am currently reading The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (I will not spoil the book I swear, I am just mentioning a known character trait that you would learn about quickly. If you don’t even want to know that then stop reading!). One of the main characters, Rachel, has an alcohol addiction and because of this, when a certain event happens, she is viewed as “unreliable” and her potential contributions to solving the problem are dismissed or minimized. Other characters even use the word “unreliable” to her face when they explain why she will not be taken seriously. Rachel also knows it’s because of her drinking.

This reminded me of my grade 12 Writer’s Craft class where we spent one class learning about unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who’s credibility is compromised. While an unreliable narrator is not necessarily a specific type of person my class came up with stereotypical examples of people who could be unreliable. I remember various classmates saying that someone with a mental illness, an intellectual/cognitive/developmental disability, and an addict would be unreliable narrators and we should not trust their views of events. If my memory recalls correctly my teacher gave the example of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time where it is suspected that the main character, Christopher, has autism and is unreliable due to his issues around social interaction and processing.

I know I have been viewed as unreliable due to my high emotional states and I have even viewed myself as unreliable but only because this is what I have been told I am. Are we really though? Are those of us who struggle with emotional and mental issues actually unreliable? Does our ideas of normality play a role in our reliability? Is anyone really reliable all the time?

I personally believe that reliability has more to with knowing the facts about something rather than our mental state. While I recognize that our mental state can influence our ability to process the facts, it is not just our mental state alone that should determine our reliability. When I have the facts, I am reliabile. If anything I may be more reliable because I pursue the facts, knowing I am highly emotional, and frequently try to reality check. Those whose mental state is not in question may not pursue the facts because they assume they do not have barriers to accessing them.

We also need to all admit that everyone has a different reality. So many factors go into how we interpret events and make meaning of facts. We may be bias, be influenced by our culture, political stance, education background etc. Maybe it’s more about an alternative perspective than it is about reliability?

We can all be reliable and unreliable. We are human. To dismiss someone because of their mental state is wrong. Sometimes we may even see and understand more because we are not taken seriously.

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7 thoughts on “Are we unreliable sources?

  1. I think every human is an unreliable interpreter of events. Studies have shown this to be true. You don’t need a mental illness to be an unreliable witness. As you mention, everyone walks into a situation with their own cognitive bias.
    And like you, I think my awareness of my cognitive bias makes me perhaps more aware of a situation and more reliable in seeing events as they are. But possibly that is also a cognitive bias? It becomes a room of mirrors if you think about it hard enough.
    I love to consider the narrative bias of a novel. (in a well written one anyway) Because EVERY narrator is an unreliable narrator. They are all coming into the situation with their own bias. I love Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. His bias in life is so clear and present and yet we are so willing to fall into his world that its rare that the reader thinks too hard about Archie’s bias. Stout was a master at character.

    • It’s so true! We are all unreliable! We will always be bias, especially when it comes to our best interests. I think I’m going to watch for character bias more. Despite what I just wrote it never occurred to me to always look for it when I’m reading lol I will have to check out Stout. I’m always up for a good read.

  2. I found myself becoming angry where you wrote about your class believing that those with a mental illness are unreliable. Like you, I believe everyone can be relaiable or unreliable, depending on the circumstance.

  3. I think we all can be unreliable. Nobodys perfect. And yes it is wrong to assume that just because somebodys mentally ill they are unreliable. And now i wanna read the girl on the train! XX

  4. Those of us who have learned to mistrust our perceptions-of-the-moment and reflect before reacting are actually MORE reliable narrators. I’ve lived with depression for many years. When someone says something to me that sounds critical, I pull it through my logic filters to ask myself if my current emotional state could be placing more negative spin on the comment than was originally intended. (This works with everyone EXCEPT my mother. Go figure!) Anyway, it’s a survival technique that has worked for me; it could be a cognitive bias “hall of mirrors” except for the fact that any degree of self-awareness is better than none, and I’m much less reactive when I use my logic circuit test. Thanks for your post – I’m going to try to find the book you are reading in my local library.

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