Confabulation: good, bad, or inevitable?

Three Little Wild Boar and the Big Bad Wolf by Duangrat Anutaratanya

Incurable confabulators

Philosophers sometimes describe humans as rational animals. It would be more accurate to say that we are confabulating animals. The problem is that it is not always easy to distinguish our frequent practice of confabulation from the rare moments when we exercise our rationality. A provocative idea is that all reasoning is confabulation. When we do it well we call it rational decision-making. When we do it badly we call it post-hoc rationalisation.

For instance, there is abundant evidence suggesting that decision makers are biased by people’s gender, ethnicity, and sexual preferences when they select job candidates based on their CVs. Also, the appearance of job candidates affects the assessment of their performance during interviews. Hiring managers are often unaware of such biases and provide perfectly respectable explanations for their choices.

Disguising bias

Suppose the department is hiring a research assistant for a new project. Tim and Arya apply. At the end of the selection process, I recommend that the panel should offer the job to Tim. When the panel asks me why, I say that Tim is more confident and has more relevant work experience than Arya. Isn’t this a great example of rationality in action? I offered some good reasons for my preference.

Except I didn’t. Arya is as confident and has as much relevant work experience as Tim. Unbeknownst to me, my preference is due to negative associations triggered by Arya’s ethnicity and appearance. I give reasons that are usually good reasons for preferring one job candidate over another. That’s because I come to believe that those reasons motivated my preference. As this case shows, confabulation can be epistemically bad and harmful too. I am mistaken about the reasons for my preference. Moreover, my ill-grounded explanation makes it harder to detect the bias that was responsible for my behaviour.

However, by confabulating I maintain an image of myself as a competent and coherent decision maker. Confabulation enables me to integrate an instance of behaviour whose causes were partially mysterious to me into a wider system of values. Those values contribute to my overall identity and guide my future actions. In addition, as I verbalise and share reasons for my preference, the other panelists have the opportunity to challenge the evidence for my claims.

Excusing bad behaviour

In her thought-provoking commentary, Elly Vintiadis invites us to consider another case: a victim of domestic violence excuses the behaviour of the perpetrator. “He didn’t mean to push me”, “He had too much to drink”, “All couples have fights”. With this narrative the victim preserves her sense of agency and combats a growing sense of helplessness. As the victim believes that everything is normal, she shares her experiences with others. This makes it possible for her interpretation of the events to be challenged. In the long run, access to different interpretations may convince her that she is being abused.

Elly Vintiadis: “The Contexts of Epistemic Innocence”

Elly argues that, if confabulation is epistemically innocent, so is the narrative by the victim of domestic violence who excuses the perpetrator, and that is a problem for my account. Explanations seem to attain epistemic innocence without bringing any genuine epistemic benefits. In a society where it is commonplace for men to beat women, the victim’s narrative is not likely to receive challenges. And her confabulation will not contribute to an understanding of her situation as an instance of abuse. (Andrew Spear raises similar worries in his paper on gaslighting.)

Innocence as a potential

Elly’s analysis brings home the idea that a belief can have short-term epistemic benefits without enhancing our understanding of ourselves or the world we live in. It is also an important reminder that epistemic evaluations are context-dependent. My aim in the book is to create the conceptual space for some irrational beliefs to be epistemically beneficial. My aim is not to bestow epistemic innocence on any specific instance of irrational belief. Whether a belief realises its potential for epistemic innocence depends on what the person’s psychological state is at the time and what evidence is available. But it also depends on the social context in which the belief is reported, and on many other factors that make each case unique.

Why should we care for potential epistemic innocence? The possibility of epistemic innocence informs our reaction to irrational beliefs. An irrational belief may signal that the person is intellectually lazy, but it may also tell us that the person has no access to evidence that would lead her to adopting a more rational belief. Or that she lacks the resources to confront a reality that at the time is just too bleak. By raising the possibility that irrational beliefs have epistemic benefits we put in motion a process that results into gathering evidence for whether specific instances of irrational beliefs are actually epistemically beneficial.


  1. A_Raybould

    The last four years have been particularly divisive in both the US and UK, and in both places, this has been exacerbated by what might be called ‘confabulation by proxy’. The use of tendentious, contradictory, irrelevant and incendiary arguments has always been a feature of political discourse, but it goes through phases where there is no need to even pretend to be objective – the target audience either cannot make the distinction or does not care – and we are in one of those phases now.

    It is clear that at least some of the most effective sources of this confabulation are well aware of this, but they are not confabulating on their own account: the goal is to provide their audience with ready-made confabulations so that they never have to think for themselves, and so that they always have what looks like a counter-argument to summarily dismiss anything that might change their minds. This confabulation is not a step on the way to understanding what is going on: to the contrary, it is intended to be an immunization against that happening, and it works all too well.

  2. Lisa Bortolotti


    With a colleague of mine interested in confabulation (Kathleen Murphy-Hollies), we are exploring precisely this phenomenon. One thing we are looking at is national narratives of exceptionalism offered by governments to hide their incompetence (“We don’t need to prepare for covid because here we are better organised than in other countries. It won’t hit us so badly”). Confabulation is the mechanism by which these narratives are maintained in the face of counter evidence.

    I will post a link once the paper is out!

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