Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Richard Nisbett

Liar, Liar, Confabulator

Uh oh. His lips are moving.

Uh oh. His lips are moving.

How can you tell when humans are lying? Their lips move.

It’s not necessarily the case that we lie with the intent to deceive or defraud. It’s just that many of the stories that come out of our mouths simply aren’t true. You can call it non-malicious fabricated storytelling. More generally, it’s called confabulation.

Neurologists originally thought confabulation resulted from mental deficits caused by injuries or strokes or dementia. People with such deficits might tell entirely cohesive stores that were simply not true. Some people might recall old memories and assume that they were fresh and current. Others might invent stories to explain their physical limitations like blindness or paralysis. In Oliver Sack’s well-known book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the man in question mis-identified not only his wife but most everyone he met.

The more we study confabulation, the more we recognize that “normal” people do it as well. We all have an innate desire to connect the dots. We want to explain how things happen and why. We want to be able to say that X caused Y and – if it was true in the past – it should also be true in the future.

The more we can construct effective stories about the past, the more we believe we can control the future. This gives us a sense of confidence and security. But, of course, we can’t predict the future. (Experts are especially bad at it). I wonder if our inability to predict the future doesn’t result from confabulation. We confabulate the past and, therefore, the future.

Here’s a little thought experiment. If you see five similar objects arrayed left to right, which one do you prefer? In the absence of distinguishing information, people tend to pick the object on the right. Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson used this bias in an early study of “normal” confabulation. The study simulated a consumer survey and asked subjects to pick an item of apparel from a left-to-right array of four items that were essentially the same.

Nisbett and Wilson noted that, “… the right-most object in the array was heavily over chosen.” This was expected; it’s normal behavior. However, when the researchers asked people why they chose a particular object, they gave all kinds of answers that had nothing to do with position. In other words, they were confabulating even under perfectly normal conditions.

Similarly, I have a story that explains my career. I have an explanation for why I was promoted in a certain case and not in another. I can explain how I got from Job A to Job G in a very linear, logical fashion. But do I really know these things? Am I really sure what caused what? Do I really know why the boss made a given decision? No, I don’t. But I can make up a good story.

The only way to prove cause-and-effect is through an experiment. I would have to replicate myself and run the two versions of me in parallel. I obviously can’t do that, so I’ve made up a convenient story. It seems plausible; it works for me. But is it true? Even I don’t know.

Confabulation happens before and beneath our consciousness. Nisbett and Wilson cite George Miller: “It is the result of thinking, not the process of thinking, that appears spontaneously in our consciousness.” We can’t readily control confabulation because we don’t know it’s happening. We only see the results.

When you ask someone a question like, Why did you choose your career? (or your spouse, or your suit, etc.), you’ll likely get a plausible answer. But is it true? Even the speaker can’t know for sure. Can it help us understand the past and predict the future? Probably not.

For a good overview of confabulation, see Helen Phillips’ article in New Scientist.

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