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Archive for 25/01/2011

Confabulation and transparency

It is that time of year; Edge has published this year’s question and has over 160 answers so far.

James Flynn has defined “shorthand abstractions” (or “SHA’s”) as concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates (”market”, “placebo”, “random sample,” “naturalistic fallacy,” are a few of his examples). His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used as an element in thinking and debate.

The term ’scientific”is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The question is the work of Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman. It is worth a read and all the answers are found here

One answer fits with the previous posting on the transparency of consciousness, Fiery Cushman’s piece on confabulation.

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.

This confabulation is well known and studied. It takes experimental situations to make it plainly evident. We are guessing at our motivation but we are not so wrong as to be laughable. Because we are not conscious of the transparent workings of our brain we can only guess.

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 “partly right” for “completely right”, and thereby fail to recognize the equal influence of the unconscious, or to guard against it.

Cushman still uses the conscious-unconscious model of thought and seems to assume that some of our cognition is not transparent. I prefer the transparent explanation. We get the guesses right because we are good and practiced guessers. He gives a number of examples of our guesses missing important motivations and then ends with this:

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. … 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.

Or we can assume that everyone is only guessing all the time, but that by and large the guesses are pretty good. Their inaccuracy is usually in their self-serving quality - both for us and for others.