We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. The explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete. Yet, that is not how it feels. Instead it feels like we know exactly what we're doing and why. This is confabulation: Guessing at plausible explanations for our behavior, and then regarding those guesses as introspective certainties. Every year psychologists use dramatic examples to entertain their undergraduate audiences. Confabulation is funny, but there is a serious side, too. Understanding it can help us act better and think better in everyday life.
Some of the most famous examples of confabulation come "split-brain" patients, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected for medical treatment. Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body's behavior ("I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!").
Wholesale confabulations in neurological patients can be jaw-dropping, but in part that is because they do not reflect ordinary experience. Most of the behaviors that you or I perform are not induced by crafty neuroscientists planting subliminal suggestions in our right hemisphere. When we are outside the laboratory — and when our brains have all the usual connections — most behaviors that we perform are the product of some combination of deliberate thinking and automatic action.
Ironically, that is exactly what makes confabulation so dangerous. If we routinely got the explanation for our behavior totally wrong — as completely wrong as split-brain patients sometimes do — we would probably be much more aware that there are pervasive, unseen influences on our behavior. The problem is that we get all of our explanations partly right, correctly identifying the conscious and deliberate causes of our behavior. Unfortunately, we mistake "party right" for "completely right", and thereby fail to recognize the equal influence of the unconscious, or to guard against it.
A choice of job, for instance, depends partly on careful deliberation about career interests, location, income, and hours. At the same time, research reveals that choice to be influenced by a host of factors of which we are unaware. People named Dennis or Denise are more likely to be dentists, while people named Virginia are more likely to locate to (you guessed it) Virginia. Less endearingly, research suggests that on average people will take a job with fewer benefits, a longer commute and a smaller income if it allows them to avoid having a female boss. Surely most people do not want to choose a job based on the sound of their name, nor do they want to sacrifice job quality in order to perpetuate old gender norms. Indeed, most people have no awareness that these factors influence their own choices. When you ask them why they took the job, they are likely to reference their conscious thought processes: "I've always loved making ravioli, the Lira is on the rebound and Rome is for lovers…" That answer is partly right, but it is also partly wrong, because it misses the deep reach of automatic processes on human behavior.
People make harsher moral judgments in foul-smelling rooms, reflecting the role of disgust as a moral emotion. Women are less likely to call their fathers (but equally likely to call their mothers) during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, reflecting a means of incest avoidance. Students indicate greater political conservatism when polled near a hand-sanitizing station during a flu epidemic, reflecting the influence of a threatening environment on ideology. They also indicate a closer bond to their mother when holding hot coffee versus iced coffee, reflecting the metaphor of a "warm" relationship.
Automatic behaviors can be remarkably organized, and even goal-driven. For example, research shows that people tend to cheat just as much as they can without realizing that they are cheating. This is a remarkable phenomenon: Part of you is deciding how much to cheat, calibrated at just the level that keeps another part of you from realizing it.
One of the ways that people pull off this trick is with innocent confabulations: When self-grading an exam, students think, "Oh, I was going to circle e, I really knew that answer!" This isn't a lie, any more than it's a lie to say you have always loved your mother (latte in hand), but don't have time to call your dad during this busy time of the month. These are just incomplete explanations, confabulations that reflect our conscious thoughts while ignoring the unconscious ones.
This brings me to the central point, the part that makes confabulation an important concept in ordinary life and not just a trick pony for college lectures. Perhaps you have noticed that people have an easier time sniffing out unseemly motivations for other's behavior than recognizing the same motivations for their own behavior. Others avoided female bosses (sexist) and inflated their grades (cheaters), while we chose Rome and really meant to say that Anne was the third Brontë. There is a double tragedy in this double standard.
First, we jump to the conclusion that others' behaviors reflect their bad motives and poor judgment, attributing conscious choice to behaviors that may have been influenced unconsciously. Second, we assume that our own choices were guided solely by the conscious explanations that we conjure, and reject or ignore the possibility of our own unconscious biases.
By understanding confabulation we can begin to remedy both faults. We can hold others responsible for their behavior without necessarily impugning their conscious motivations. And, we can hold ourselves more responsible by inspecting our own behavior for its unconscious influences, as unseen as they are unwanted.