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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.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.