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Confabulation: why telling ourselves stories makes us feel ok
When we don't know the reasons behind our choices, we confabulate.
In a now classic experiment, the psychologists Richard E Nisbett and Timothy Wilson at the University of Michigan laid out a range of items, such as pairs of stockings, and asked people to select one. Participants consistently preferred the items on their most right-hand side. But when they were asked to explain their choices, they did not mention the position of the items, and instead attributed their choices to the superior texture or colour of the chosen pair of stockings, even when the displayed pairs were all identical. People confabulated. Not knowing some of the factors that were determining their choices, they produced an explanation that was not based on evidence relevant to the factors determining their choices, but mentioned instead plausible reasons why the chosen item was better.
This type of behaviour is not confined to experimental situations. In our everyday lives, we often explain our choices earnestly, even if we don’t know some of the facts relevant to the reason we made those choices. When we offer an explanation, we propose some plausible argument for choosing the way we did. Suppose a panel shortlists two candidates for a job, and is assessing them after carefully considering their CVs and their performance at the interview. Most people on the panel express a strong preference for John (a white male) over Arya (a woman of colour).
When asked to explain their preferences, the panellists say that John has more experience than Arya, and performed more confidently at the interview. But actually, both candidates have the same amount of relevant job experience, and exhibited the same level of confidence at the interview. The panellists’ preference was the result of an implicit bias against women of colour. As the panellists are not aware of this bias, they lack information relevant to the factors determining their preference. They explain their preference by giving the sorts of reasons commonly accepted in a hiring context. The panellists in this scenario confabulate.
‘Confabulation’ comes from the Latin fabula (‘story’) which can be either a historical account or a fairytale. When we confabulate, we tell a story that is fictional, while believing that it is a true story. As we are not aware that our story is fictional, this is very different from a lie: we have no intention to deceive. So in confabulation there is a mismatch between what we aim to do (tell a true story) and what we end up doing (tell a fictional story). We tend to confabulate when we are asked to explain our choices because we don’t always know the factors responsible for our choices. Yet, when asked why we made a choice, we offer an explanation. The explanation can sound plausible, but is not grounded in the relevant evidence because it doesn’t take into account some of the factors determining our choices.
It seems obvious that confabulation is something we should avoid if we can. It is the result of ignorance and it further spreads misleading information about ourselves (eg, that we choose stockings based on their colour) and about the world (eg, that Arya was less confident than John at her job interview). Yet, counterintuitive as it might seem, confabulation can have benefits as well as costs. I suggest that when we confabulate rather than acknowledge ignorance, we construct a better image of ourselves; we integrate disparate information about ourselves into a coherent story; and we share information about ourselves with others.
Let’s consider each of these three effects in turn. By having an explanation for our choices rather than acknowledging ignorance, we enhance our private and public self-image. Despite our actual state of ignorance about the factors influencing our choices, we present ourselves as agents who know why they make the choices they make and who make choices for good reasons. If the research participants in the Nisbett and Wilson study hadn’t explained their choice of stockings, they would have given the impression of choosing randomly or of not being discerning customers. If the panellists hadn’t provided any reason for preferring John to Arya for the job, their preferences would not have been as authoritative.
Further, when we offer an explanation, an instance of behaviour whose causes are elusive to us can be integrated into a wider system of beliefs, preferences and values that contributes to the overall sense of who we are, which is often called identity. Particular choices fit a pattern of preferences and become part of comprehensive narratives, where reasons make sense of our past behaviour, and shape our future behaviour. If the research participants in the Nisbett and Wilson study attribute to themselves a general preference for brighter stockings or softer nightgowns, such a preference can also be used to interpret their previous behaviour or predict their future consumer choices.
Finally, when we confabulate, we share information about ourselves, and our choices can become an object of conversation and discussion. We receive external feedback on issues that are relevant to our choices, and we can revisit the reasons we use to explain our behaviour. If the panellists claim that their preference for John is due to his greater work experience, the fact that he is better than Arya in this respect can be challenged. John’s CV can be looked at again, leading to a change of preference.
Although our choices are often influenced by external cues and unconscious drives, we tend to see ourselves as competent and largely coherent agents who do and believe things for good reasons. This sense of agency is partly an illusion, but sustains our motivation to pursue our goals in critical circumstances. When we overestimate our competence, we tend to be more productive, more resilient, better at planning, and more effective at problem-solving. When we view our choices as driven by reasons, and integrate them in a coherent pattern of behaviour, we are more likely to fulfil our goals. The implications of explaining a particular choice on our overall sense of agency become more significant when the choice is self-defining, such as the vote for a political party at a general election or the choice of a life partner – also types of choices that we often explain in a confabulatory manner. Articulating reasons for self-defining choices can be a starting point for dialogue and reflection, potentially leading to change and self-improvement.
Someone could object here that a better-grounded explanation for our choice, including the accurate explanation (eg, ‘I chose this pair of stockings because of position effects, of which at the time I was unaware’), would be better than the confabulation (eg, ‘I chose this pair of stocking because it is more brightly coloured’), and also spare us from false beliefs. But even if the accurate explanation were available to us, it would be unlikely to play the same self-enhancing and self-integrating role as the confabulatory explanation. Explaining consumer choice based on an unconscious tendency to favour items on our right-hand side does not support the sense that we are competent and coherent agents. Confabulation compromises our understanding of reality and of ourselves, but, when it comes to supporting agency, it often fares better than a well-grounded explanation, or even the accurate one.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.
- SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
- The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
- While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
What is FOSTA-SESTA?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="723125b44601d565a7c671c7523b6452"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WBaqDjPCH8k?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018. There was some argument that this law may be unconstitutional as it could potentially violate the <a href="https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/" target="_blank">first amendment</a>. A criminal defense lawyer explains this law in-depth in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoWx2hYg5uo&t=38s" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">this video</a>. </p><p><strong>What did FOSTA-SESTA aim to accomplish?</strong></p><p>The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims. FOSTA-SESTA started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. Targeting websites like Backpage and Craigslist, where sex workers would often arrange meetings with their clientele, FOSTA-SESTA aimed to stop the illegal sex-trafficking activity being conducted online. While the aim of FOSTA-SESTA was to keep people safer, these laws have garnered international speculation and have become quite controversial. </p><p><a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180321006214/en/National-Anti-Trafficking-Coalition-Celebrates-Survivors-Senate-Passes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">According to BusinessWire</a>, many people are in support of this bill, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and World Without Exploitation (WorldWE). </p><p>"With the growth of the Internet, human trafficking that once happened mainly on street corners has largely shifted online. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on the website Backpage.com."</p><p>As soon as this bill was <a href="https://www.pivotlegal.org/sesta_fosta_censoring_sex_workers_from_websites_sets_a_dangerous_precedent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">signed into law</a>, websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could now be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This meant websites could be prosecuted if they engaged in "the promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims." </p><p><strong>The bill's effects were felt around the world — from Canadians being unhappy with the impact of this American bill to U.K. politicians considering the implementation of similar laws in the future.</strong> </p><p>Heather Jarvis, the program coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which supports sex workers in the St. John's area, <a href="https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/heather-jarvis-website-shutdown-1.4667018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explained to CBC in an interview</a> that the American bill is impacting everyone, everywhere: "When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries. So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."</p><p>Jarvis suggests in her interview that instead of doing what they aimed to do with the bill and improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making sex workers less safe. </p><p>While <a href="https://gizmodo.com/the-uk-wants-its-own-version-of-fosta-sesta-that-could-1827420794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one U.K. publication</a> refers to FOSTA-SESTA as "well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws," it also mentions that politicians in the United Kingdom are hoping to pursue similar laws in the near future. </p>
Has FOSTA-SESTA done more harm than good?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUxMzY5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODUyNDc4OX0.dSEEzcflJJUTnUCFmuwmPAIA0f754eW7rN8x6L7fcCc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=-68%2C595%2C-68%2C595&height=700" id="69d99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="734759fa254b5a33777536e0b4d7b511" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="sex worker looking online for a job" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark?
Credit: Евгений Вершинин on Adobe Stock<p>While <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180321006214/en/National-Anti-Trafficking-Coalition-Celebrates-Survivors-Senate-Passes" target="_blank">supporters of this bill</a> have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.</p><p><strong>One of the biggest problems many people have with this bill is that it forces sex workers into an even more dangerous situation, which is quite the opposite of what the bill had intended to do.</strong> </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-anti-trafficking-activists-cheer-but-sex-workers-bemoan-shutdown-of/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Globe and Mail</a>, there has been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages that promise work - which puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power-dynamic, when before they could attempt to safely arrange their own meetings online. </p><p><strong>How dangerous was online sex work before FOSTA-SESTA? </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.beyond-the-gaze.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/BtGbriefingsummaryoverview.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The University of Leicester Department of Criminology</a> conducted an online survey that focused on the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work. According to the results, 91.6 percent of participants had not experienced a burglary in the past 5 years, 84.4 percent had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5 percent had experienced physical assault in the last 12 months. </p><p><a href="https://www.pivotlegal.org/sesta_fosta_censoring_sex_workers_from_websites_sets_a_dangerous_precedent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PivotLegal</a> expresses concerns about this: "It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite."</p><p><strong>Websites are also being hypervigilant (and censoring more content than needed) because they can't possibly police every single user's activity on their platform.</strong> </p><p>Passing this bill meant any website (not just the ones that are commonly used by sex traffickers) could be held liable for their user's posts. Naturally, this saw a general "tightening of the belt" when it came to what was allowed on various platforms. In late 2018, shortly after the FOSTA-SESTA bill was passed, companies like Facebook slowly began to alter their terms and conditions to protect themselves. </p><p>Facebook notably added sections that express prohibited certain sexual content and messages:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Content that includes an implicit invitation for sexual intercourse, which can be described as naming a sexual act and other suggestive elements including (but not limited to):</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– vague suggestive statements such as: 'looking forward to an enjoyable evening'</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– sexual use of language […]</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– content (self-made, digital or existing) that possibly portrays explicit sexual acts or a suggestively positioned person/suggestively positioned persons."<br><br> </em></p><p>Additionally, sections like this were also added, prohibiting things that could allude to sexual activity: </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Content in which other acts committed by adults are requested or offered, such as:</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– commercial pornography</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– partners that share fetishes or sexual interests"</em></p><p>Facebook wasn't the only website to crack down on their policies — the Craigslist classifieds section being removed and Reddit banned quite a large number of sex-worker related subreddits. </p><p><strong>Is FOSTA-SESTA really helpful?</strong> </p><p>This is the question many people are facing with the FOSTA-SESTA acts being passed just a few years ago. Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark? Opinions seem to be split down the middle on this — what do you think?</p>