Home > Cognitive Bias, Memory > Confabulations: I am honestly (not) lying to you

Confabulations: I am honestly (not) lying to you

Have you ever told someone a story about something that happened in your life only for them to reply with, “That didn’t happen… Quit lying”? Now, have you ever asked someone a question only to be answered with a story that didn’t quite add up? In those instances, did you swear you were telling the truth? Did they? Maybe you both were but somewhere along the way, a couple details drifted away from actuality and you honestly didn’t know it. Maybe you were confabulating.

Confabulations occur when a person describes or talks about their memories that contain false or changed information without the conscious awareness that their memories did not actually happen. Sometimes these errors in memory are mistaken for lies, but it is important to note that there is a difference. Lies are intentional and often used to fool others, while confabulations are completely unintentional as the person retelling their memory, believes that their memory is true.

There are two types of confabulations—provoked and spontaneous confabulations. Provoked confabulations are generally seen when a person would falsely fill in the gaps of their known memory to answer a question or add to a conversation. Spontaneous confabulations are, as the name suggests, spontaneous. They occur free from context or any obvious motivation to fabricate stories—they just sort of happen. Between the two, provoked confabulations are more common and can happen to anyone, whereas spontaneous confabulations can be quite rare and are more specifically attributed to those with dementia or amnesia.

Confabulations are more likely to occur when there are deficits in time orientation—the organization of personal experiences (i.e. past, present, future), as seen in individuals with Alzheimer’s or amnesia. This means that these errors in memory, often mistaken for lies, are directly related to our ability to “go back in time” and remember our past.

To test for possible cognitive functions behind confabulations, a study had participants answer questions related to their autobiographical memory—memory related to their personal experiences, and general knowledge (Confabulation Battery). An example of an autobiographical episodic (personal) memory question would be: “What did you do for your last birthday?” and an example of an autobiographical semantic (general facts) memory question would be: “When is your birthday?”. The category of general questions could be like: “What is the capital of the United States?”. These questions act as cues for provoked confabulations when the participants do not truly know the answer. In other words, rather than simply stating, “I don’t know,” a confabulator would be more likely to confidently answer or tell a story that inadvertently contains false information—highly detailed or not at all and this is highly linked to the retrieval of  false memories—events in one’s memory that have been altered or fabricated either partially or completely.

Additionally, participants also completed a word recognition and recall task (the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm) Researchers then compared the results of confabulating amnesia patients, non-confabulating amnesia patients and healthy individuals, finding that those who confabulated showed much more impairments in attention, verbal memory, and time orientation than the other two groups (Shingaki et al., 2016).

Similar to the idea of time orientation, another study on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease found similar effects of confabulation as a result of “mental time travel”—the ability to place oneself into a specific memory and time (Noel, Larøi, Gallouj, & El Haj, 2018). This includes both remembering past events and imagining what could be in store for the future.

Using similar methods (the Confabulation Battery), they tested for provoked confabulations by asking a series of questions about general knowledge, autobiographical memory, personal facts, and unrelated (distractor) information. In this study, it was found that the Alzheimer’s patients who produced more confabulations were those who were less able to mentally time travel.

Another study by Dalla Barba, Brazzarola, Marangoni, Barbera, and Zannoni (2017) found that the more times an individual is asked the exact same question that initially prompted the confabulation, the more solidified the confabulation will be in ones memory, the more convinced the individual will be that their memory is true.

So… what does this all mean?

Though there is still a lot we don’t know, in a world where people are so quick to judge, simply acknowledging that confabulations can occur should lead us to be more cautious in our assumptions that someone is lying to us because maybe, just maybe, they don’t even know. And when it comes to populations known to have memory deficits such as Alzheimer’s disease (and other dementia types) and amnesia, one should be more mindful of the fact that confabulations can be a part of their daily lives and there’s not much they can do about it.




Dalla Barba, G., Brazzarola, M., Marangoni, S., Barbera, C., & Zannoni, I. (2017). A longitudinal study of confabulation. Cortex, 87, 44-51. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2016.05.009

Dalla Barba, G., & Kopelman, M. (2017). Confabulations and related disorders: we’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot to do! Cortex, 87, 1-4. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2016.12.001

Noel, M., Larøi, F., Gallouj, K., & El Haj, M. (2018). Relationships between confabulations and mental time travel in Alzheimer’s disease. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 30(4), 302-309. doi: 10.1176/appo.neuropsych.17110266

Shingaki, H., Park, P., Ueda, K., Murai, T., & Tsukiura, T. (2016). Disturbance of time orientation, attention, and verbal memory in amnesic patients with confabulation. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 38(2), 171-182. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2015.1094027



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