More evidence, this time from evolutionary psychology, that asking people to explain what they think is mostly useless.


Call me inerudite if you will, but until last week I had no idea that “confabulation” was a real word. Sounded to me like gobbledegook. It turns out that it is in fact a scientific term which applies to the phenomenon that people will make up reasons to explain their own behaviour in as rational a way as possible. It belongs in fact to the world of split brain surgery.

In the 1960s a surgeon called Joe Bogen began cutting people’s brain’s in half. He was trying to help the victims of epileptic seizures by stopping them from spreading from one side of the brain to the other. Bogen brought in a psychologist called Michael Gazzaniga to investigate whether this apparently successful surgery had any side effects. He showed patients different pictures for each side of the brain, and then asked them to link the pictures together based on what they’d just seen. In one example he showed a patient’s left side a chicken claw and his right side a snow scene. The patient was then shown a series of pictures and asked to point to the one that went with what he had been shown. The patient’s right hand pointed to a chicken and his left hand to a shovel. When he was asked to explain his responses he could not report verbally on the snow scene because that image had been sent to the right hemisphere of the brain which does not control speech. Instead of owning up to not knowing why he had pointed to a shovel though he instantly made up a plausible story that had nothing to do with snow. He in fact “confabulated” saying : “The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed”.

This account is in the opening chapter of “The happiness hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt ( (Don’t be put off by the title, it is very far from a happy clappy self awareness manual). Now obviously the Gazzaniga experiments apply to rare and serious conditions and do not apply to normality day to day. But they are interesting as an indicator of just how far people go to justify their behaviour in a rational way.

There are many opinion polls about the current election taking up a huge amount of press space. There are repeated interviews with voters who are considering switching parties on May 6th. Earlier this week on radio 4 one chap said that he was considering voting LibDem for the first time and when asked why mentioned a “breath of fresh air” as the rationale for it (he didn’t sound like he’d spent much time studying the LibDem policies to put it mildly).

It may be that to ask people why they prefer one thing over another most of the time is a nonsense. And the more you press them to give reasons for their decisions the more they will confabulate. This reinforces the need for highly skilled interpreters of any research.
And it suggests that the last thing to do is to take the research outcomes too literally. As a bare minimum you will need to de-confabulate them yourself.

Particularly if you buy another of Haidt’s hypotheses. He suggests that our minds are “loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part : conscious verbal thinking.” Emotion is an older evolution than reason. It works better, more efficiently and more powerfully than the part of the brain that rationalises and it runs you as a person, whether you like it or not. Your reason justifies your emotions. You have no chance of your head ruling your heart in the long run.

This is a significant theory to feed into behavioural change models and buying decisions. It probably explains a great deal. Most of the reactions we have to things are gut. We then put a lot of effort into explaining them to ourselves and others.

Next time you plot a consumer journey based on logic, ask yourself if it would look any different based on the oldest instincts of emotion and indeed the desire for personal happiness. Or as Ovid put it “Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong”.

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