Confabulation is typically understood to be dysfunctional. But this understanding neglects the phenomenon’s potential benefits. In fact, we think that the benefits of non-clinical confabulation provide a better foundation for a general account of confabulation. In this paper, we start from these benefits to develop a social teleological account of confabulation. Central to our account is the idea that confabulation manifests a kind of willful ignorance. By understanding confabulation in this way, we can provide principled explanations for the difference between clinical and non-clinical cases of confabulation and the extent to which confabulation is rational.
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Doris (2015: p. 141) also distinguishes between false memory reports and faulty justification reports. However, he calls these latter reports “rationalizations rather than confabulations, to distinguish them from the clinical phenomena” (2015: p. 141). We accept the distinction, but reject the implication that ‘confabulation’ refers exclusively to some clinical phenomenon.
Hirstein (2005: p. 5).
To press this point, Hirstein also says: “Confabulation involves absence of doubt about something one should doubt…It is a sort of pathological certainty about ill-grounded thoughts and utterances” (2005: p. 4). Moreover, his account is rooted in the claim that confabulations results from frontal processes failing to operate properly (2005: p. 178). He takes this to be evidence that confabulation is a product of systematic failure. Finally, his sense of ‘should’ at issue is functional: “The use of ‘should’ here involves no more than the claim that an optimally functioning car should move down the road” (2005: p. 192).
Hirstein supports his account, however, with appeals to elements that make confabulation seem inherently clinical. Confabulation is persistent (or pathological), contra-functional, and grounded in neurological damage.
As we explain below, confabulation typically does most of its work behind the scenes. The easiest exceptions to find lie in certain clinical settings where confabulation blatantly reveals itself. This might explain why the study of confabulation initially focused almost exclusively on clinical cases of it. We thank a reviewer for raising this point.
Studies that investigate positional effects on choice also tend to elicit confabulation (Bar Hillel 2015). Hall et al. (2012) identified similar effects for political and moral opinions. Participants first completed surveys on their political and moral opinions. Researchers then reversed some answers and ask participants to explain their (now reversed) opinions. Nearly 70% of participants defended the reversed position, even when the level of initial agreement tended toward the poles (i.e. strong agreement or strong disagreement). These studies and consumer choice studies are importantly similar: in them, people justify choices by appealing to reasons that do not discriminate the chosen option from other available options.
In this context, random selection need not be the activity of a mechanism, strictly speaking. Random selection might be the upshot of processes with certain computational properties that can be modeled as continuous random diffusion processes (Ratcliff and McKoon 2008). For simplicity, though, we heuristically talk in terms of mechanisms.
In our view, the mechanism is arbitrary in that it responds to some reasons and not to others in a manner that is unprincipled. This mechanism thus does not exacerbate Bortolotti’s worry about unconscious influence undermining reasons-responsiveness. Though the selection mechanism exhibits a kind of arbitrariness, this arbitrariness is compatible with reasons-responsiveness.
More fully: reasons-responsive mechanisms are composed of computational processes that, in certain situations (such as these Buridan’s Ass scenarios), bias decision-making toward one option from a number of practically indiscriminable options. This is still the activity of a reasons-responsive mechanism because the output is a choice made on the basis of reasons (even though those reasons might not be discriminating).
This illusion also holds for LGBTQ and cohabiting heterosexual couples (Conley et al. 2009).
This phenomenon extends beyond cases of long-term, committed relationships. Many endeavors benefit from increased resilience resulting from a (potentially overinflated) sense of competence. The reason for this becomes clear when situated within our account of socially embedded agency in the next section.
On this view, confabulation is an essentially social act because it is communicative (where the communication produces or maintains ignorance). This communicative element of confabulation distinguishes it from delusion, since delusion can occur without communication. We thank a reviewer for indicating this consequence of our view.
There is some evidence that people take consciousness to be necessary for free agency, though this research does not distinguish between free agency requiring some form of consciousness and particular exercises of free agency requiring conscious mental activity in its immediate proximal etiology (Shepherd 2015). Other evidence suggests that people easily confuse unconscious motivational factors with mechanistic causes of action (where mechanism is incompatible with agency; see De Brigard et al. 2009). Thus, there appears to be no conclusive evidence for or against the claim that knowledge of the widespread influence of unconscious processes on decision-making would undermine individual sense of agency.
Our claim about the rationality of confabulation is similar to Bratman’s external sense of rationality in intentional action (Bratman 1987: p. 43). From the external view, intentional action is rational when and only when such action contributes to the satisfaction of rational desires. The rationality of desires is a more complicated issue that goes beyond the scope of this paper. We note briefly our preference for accounts of rational desire that state explain the rationality of desire in terms of how well grounded the desire is in appropriate experiences of the desirability characteristics of some state of affairs that forms part of the object of the desire (Audi 1985).
Sometimes, willful ignorance is the result of a deliberate failure to acquire evidence (for instance, the suspicious spouse might be willfully ignorant of her partner’s infidelity because she deliberately avoids checking her spouse's phone for evidence). The kind of willful ignorance manifested in confabulation is not like this. As we'll discuss below, the kind of willful ignorance manifested in confabulation is the result of a deliberate failure to access information that is either known or easily inferred given what is already known.
This formulation might seem paradoxical. How can information that is practically unthinkable be accessible? While the information is unthinkable relative to the current context, this does not rule out the possibility of the information being accessed in a different context. Evidence that this kind of information is available comes from Solomon and Vazire’s (2014) study, where people were able to back off of their confabulations in certain contexts.
While our account borrows heavily from Frankfurt’s conception of the will, it does not depend on his being the correct account of the will. We think that these structures (cares, goals, commitments, volitional constraints, etc.) are typical of human psychology. The relationship between these structures and confabulation is independent of whether the concept of the will can be fully analyzed in terms of these structures. This brings out the close relationship between our account and other motivational accounts of confabulation (Sullivan-Bissett 2015; Coltheart 2017). Our account adds to these an underlying notion of agency that supplies a framework for thinking about the functional role of non-clinical confabulation.
Some examples suffice to bring this out. We’ve touched on how this kind of blindness affects long-term romantic relationships. But such blindness might also affect particular religious communities that include members who have done terrible things (e.g. the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church). Commitment to the community might generate blindness to these occurrences as a way to maintain the commitment. Similarly, sports fans, in order to continue enjoying their sport, might blind themselves to unfair labor practices or player safety concerns. Fans of American football, for example, might blind themselves to the dangers of head trauma and CTE that have recently been linked to the sport.
Two additional pieces of evidence support the claim that confabulation can be calibrated (and, hence, that the difference between clinical and non-clinical confabulation is the possibility of calibration). First, spontaneous clinical confabulation is associated with executive dysfunction, particularly with damage to the ventromedial frontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex (Gilboa et al. 2006; Turner et al. 2008). These regions also subserve various cognitive control processes like salience processing (Boorman et al. 2013). The associations between spontaneous confabulation and cognitive control (and the lack of cognitive control) salience provide one reason to believe that confabulating requires a failure of control that manifests a form of ignorance. Second, some mechanistic models of confabulation posit that confabulation partially results from a failure to monitor and suppress thoughts with false or ill-grounded contents (Johnson and Raye 2000; Turner and Coltheart 2010). These monitoring and inhibitory components are also constituents of self-control and cognitive control that ground capacities to act deliberately and intentionally (see Davisson and Hoyle 2017). These failures of control, however, can be modulated by the agent’s personal-level concerns, values, and plans (Kool et al. 2017). This empirical evidence is useful for understanding the possibility, which we discuss more below, that the difference between clinical and non-clinical confabulation consists in calibration.
The qualification is meant to acknowledge that there might be some abstract categorization that unifies all relevant neurobiological substrates of confabulation. However, the level of abstraction might be so high as to make the corresponding category uninformatively vague (see Klein 2012).
Sometimes, a confabulating individual might report its being the case that p where it was never the case that p. In this case, it’s not simply that the past representation does not play the right causal role in producing the state of remembering; rather, there is no such thing that could play this sort of causal role. However, it might still be the case that the individual is confabulating, because its not being the case that p might be easily inferred from other information accessible to the individual.
Clinical confabulations can help protect meaningful components of an individual’s self-conception (Gunn and Bortolotti 2018) and compensate for the individual’s compromised reputational capital (Bortolotti 2018). Nevertheless, confabulation that approaches paradigmatic clinical confabulation likely fails to achieve the social benefits of paradigmatic non-clinical confabulation.
Admittedly, some might not see this as a problem. Hirstein (2005: p. 226) thinks that an individual self-deceived about whether p (and who confidently and wholeheartedly believes that p) who asserts that p is confabulating.
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We thank Timothy Perrine and Santiago Amaya for helpful discussion and feedback at various stages of developing this project. We are also grateful to two anonymous referees at Synthese for insightful comments and generous feedback. This paper is vastly improved thanks to their efforts.
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Murray, S., Finocchiaro, P. These confabulations are guaranteed to improve your marriage! Toward a teleological theory of confabulation. Synthese (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02721-0
- Social agency
- Cognitive bias
- Willful ignorance