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Issue #37 - Confabulation 🧚

Mental Models Weekly
Issue #37 - Confabulation 🧚
By Julia Clavien • Issue #37 • View online
Confabulation is fascinating. I had to push past my first instinct that it didn’t apply to me… you might have to too!

What is confabulation?
Confabulation occurs when someone unintentionally fills in the gaps or deficits in their memory with inaccurate information. In simpler words - we sometimes unintentionally make stuff up.
There are several psychological and neurological conditions that can cause confabulation, however mild confabulations can occur in healthy people - yes even you and I!
I love this summary of a 1978 study:
Nisbett and Wilson set up a table in a department store with pairs of nylon stockings and asked shoppers to select the pair they preferred. Unbeknown to the shoppers, all of the pairs were identical. People tended to choose the rightmost pair for reasons that are not clear, but when asked the reason for their choice, the shoppers commented on the color and texture of the nylons. When they were told that the nylons were identical, and about the position effects, the shoppers nevertheless tended to resist this explanation and stand by their initial reasons.
Why is this interesting?
As you can see from the study, we need to be wary of making up answers! As Holly Green puts it:
We don’t like ambiguity, unanswered questions, or information gaps. And we like to be right (some of us more than others). So we often go out of our way to “explain” things even when the real explanation eludes us…
Sometimes it is easier to notice others confabulating, as explained in this MIT paper:
We are all familiar with people who seem to be unable to say the words ‘‘I don’t know,’’ and will quickly produce some sort of plausible-sounding response to whatever they are asked. A friend once described a mutual acquaintance as ‘‘a know-it-all who doesn’t know anything.’’
I think a good antidote is to practice saying “I don’t know”.
It’s not as easy as it sounds… It may be difficult in certain contexts! The same paper explains some reasons why. We tend to like people - particularly leaders - to be certain in their communication, and strong social forces discourage doubting or pleading ignorance in many situations. That said, I’ve found learning to say “I don’t know” a little more often to be a really valuable habit.
I’ll leave you with something from Socrates:
Awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.
Photo by Jesse Orrico
Photo by Jesse Orrico
Want to go deeper?
🔖 Here are some more detailed posts - this one aimed at legal professionals, and this one aimed at psychologists
📑 Here’s the heavier stuff - The stocking study, and the MIT paper (it’s actually a great read)
🤔 I wondered if leading questions trigger confabulations? Here’s a simple intro to how to avoid leading questions
📖 Confabulation is connected to an idea Jon Haidt explains well in The Happiness Hypothesis - that our reasoning doesn’t work like some kind of judge, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. Instead it works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. He writes:
The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.
📖 Also by Haidt, The Righteous Mind is a book that truly altered my world view. It’s a must read, particularly in the current political climates where most of you reside!
🧠 Build your latticework! Revisit related mental models:
Got comments?
What do you think about confabulation? I love hearing your reactions!
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Julia Clavien

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