Home > Memory > Eager To Please: Confabulation in healthy and amnesic individuals

Eager To Please: Confabulation in healthy and amnesic individuals

If we can trust anyone, we should first trust ourselves, right? Not always, as cases of confabulation tell us. Imagine not being able to trust the accuracy of your own memory! And worse, not even knowing that you can’t trust it!

Individuals who confabulate genuinely believe that their memory is accurate, when in fact they are reporting or remembering false things. For example, an amnesic patient might tell a doctor an elaborate story about his weekend, which he says he spent in New York City exploring art museums. In reality, the patient was in the hospital the entire weekend, but has no doubt that the story he’s relaying to his doctor is true.

Confabulation is the unconscious process of producing false memories, and it can affect anyone. Those affected by confabulation range from amnesic patients to an average person participating in a psychological study. Obviously, the severity and consequences of the confabulation vary depending on the individual and the situation.

Confabulation involves an error in source monitoring, which is the attribution of a specific memory to a source. Individuals who confabulate often attribute memories to incorrect sources, or fail to ascertain whether the memory has a source at all. For example, one might think they experienced a situation themselves, and therefore it is coming from their own memory, when in reality it came from a story they heard on the news. Individuals’ failure to examine the source of a false memory is part of the cause of confabulations.

There are two general types of confabulations: provoked and spontaneous. Spontaneous confabulations usually occur only in people with a brain injury that has caused them amnesia. Provoked confabulations, on the other hand, arise from a cue. They are normally caused by questioning and are the type that are seen in healthy people as well as people with amnesia and other neurological disorders. Individuals will produce provoked confabulations in response to something that challenges memory.

A paper by Max Coltheart examines confabulation in a range of individuals, from healthy to amnesic. Wilson and Nisbett (1978) tested confabulation in healthy individuals by asking random shoppers to choose a the best quality pair of stockings between 4 identical pairs. As a follow up, shoppers were asked to explain why they chose the pair they did. People offered all sorts of explanations, citing the superior texture or hue of the particular pair of stockings, which were obviously unfounded, since the stockings were all virtually the same.

This displays a classic trait of human nature: the keenness we all show for giving the correct or expected answer. When asked to complete a task, we overlook logic in favor of successful completion of the task: in this case, giving the answer that’s expected. Wouldn’t you rather give a response than admit that you don’t know something?

Another study in Coltheart’s paper examined confabulation in hypnotized individuals (Barnier, Cox, Connors, Langdon and Coltheart 2010). Subjects were hypnotized to believe that the person in the mirror they were asked to look in was a stranger. When questioned by the experimenters about why they saw a stranger in the mirror, subjects came up with all sorts of explanations in order to make sense of the seemingly impossible situation, including suggesting that they were looking at a photograph or through a hole in the wall. Experimenters also asked the subjects whether one of their family members would be able to tell the difference between them and the person in the mirror. Amazingly, subjects replied “no,” citing specific differences in physical features between themselves and the mirrored person, when of course, just like in the stockings experiment, there were none.

 These responses, like the subjects’ made-up explanations of the differences between stockings, show the human tendency to find causes, even if they are false, to make sense of a situation.

In many cases of question-provoked confabulation, researchers point out that the subjects/patients had the opportunity to respond “I don’t know” when asked to explain the logically impossible situations. Yet instead, they confabulated, coming up with elaborate false explanations for the occurrences. This attempt to rationalize their actions or statements appears to be a better alternative to having no explanation at all (Malle 2006).

People rely more on external sources of memory (like other people’s accounts of a situation) when they are having trouble remembering or have amnesia, and therefore are more susceptible to suggestibility and other biases that will cause them to create a false memory. One example of this was given by Gudjonsson, Kopelman and MacKeith (Schacter 1999). They described a man who, after being interviewed by the police about a murder case, could not stop seeing visions of the victim’s face, and became suspicious that he was the one who had committed the murder. He ended up confessing erroneously to the murder, and while on trial was unsure what he would plead because he wanted to see all of the evidence before he decided whether he was guilty or not.

According to what we know about suggestibility, which is one of the seven “sins” of memory, hearing other accounts of what happened may have had an impact on this man’s memory, perhaps making him even less sure of whether or not he had committed the murder. In this example, the man is mistrusting of his own memory and is coming to rely on other’s accounts of the incident. This could make him susceptible to both the misinformation effect and the suggestibility effect. The misinformation effect occurs when memory for a particular event is influenced by information after the event; in this case, the trial and police interviews could provide misinformation that might impact the man’s memory. The suggestibility effect is similar, referring to other’s suggestions and the way they might influence memory. In this case, being accused of the crime could make the man more likely to believe that he had committed it.

Confabulation can occur in disparate situations and have varying degrees of consequence. When confabulations occur in normal humans as a response to a desire to come up with a correct answer, they seem to be of little consequence. However, for amnesic patients or others with brain disorders, confabulations are an unavoidable, unconscious and untruthful reality that plays a significant role in their perception of their daily lives.


 Confabulation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2017, from https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262582711_sch_0001.pdf

Coltheart, M. (2017). Confabulation and conversation. Cortex,87, 62-68. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2016.08.002

 Malle, B. F. (2006). How the mind explains behavior: folk explanations, meaning, and social interaction. Cambridge: Mass.

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The cognitive neuropsychology of false memories. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

  1. April 30th, 2017 at 16:04 | #1

    This is a really interesting post and especially caught my eye after having spent so much time talking about memory this semester, particularly the fragility of memory regarding its accuracy. In class we discussed eye witness testimonies and all the subtle happenings, such as the way a question is phrased that can distort or combine with a pre-existing memory. It is interesting after reading this post to consider the aspect of the eye witness not wanting to say the “wrong thing” and potentially using the types of questions or reactions presented by the person asking to form their answers. This could lead to serious distortion or addition to the eyewitnesses original memory. After reading about the impact confabulation has on health / “normal” individuals it is pretty crazy to consider how often confabulation happens to myself.

  2. jdrose20
    April 30th, 2017 at 18:04 | #2

    I find it very interesting how confabulation can be such a huge part of the lives of people with amnesia. I am assuming that you are talking about anterograde amnesia, as patients who can’t remember what happened after an accident would be the ones susceptible to creating false memories about their recent past. Your discussion of the misinformation effect is very interesting, and I think it could relate to the Loftus case of misleading questioning. As mentioned, when people are asked a question, they focus on being able to answer the question and not necessarily on the accuracy of the question itself, which may cause them to create false memories. it would be interesting to see if confabulation could be produced in lab, rather than only in real-life settings. You also mentioned the fact that people tend to confabulate when they have difficulty explaining or rationalizing their own actions. This seems as though it may relate to the issue of cognitive dissonance, and may act as a way to decrease cognitive dissonance, be it an ineffective one.

  3. krmcma20
    May 1st, 2017 at 22:18 | #3

    This is a very interesting post, especially in comparison to my own post on confabulation. Though written on the same topic, our posts are very different in context and information. One thing that sticks out to me in particular is that my own research into the topic indicated that confabulation only occurs as a result of brain damage and memory deficit. This post, however, makes it clear that confabulation can happen to anyone, which I thought was very interesting because our research led us in two completely different directions. I thought that when an average person created an erroneous memory, this was merely an example of a false memory, but that confabulation is a false memory that pertains specifically to a person with brain damage and memory loss. Your post is able to then bring up important issues such as false memories in eye witness testimonies, which I found to be a very interesting in-class discussion. The seven sins of memory apply to everyone, and seeing more examples of how they apply to us everyday is intriguing. It is a little daunting to see how malleable our memories are, and how outside influences can impact our memories to such a great extent. While I focused more on confabulation as a neurological disorder, you brought it up in a real-world context which I enjoyed greatly, as we learned in class how susceptible eye witness testimonies are to errors, such as suggestibility, source misattribution, and transience. I think that being able to apply these biases to the real world is very important, and you did a great job at doing so.

  4. bacollin
    May 7th, 2017 at 13:51 | #4

    After taking cognitive psychology and focusing a lot of time on studying memory, I find this post interesting in its connection to flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories, a type of false memory, can be influenced by an extremely emotional event and the environment in which a person is in. This is something that can happen to anyone, as expressed in the study we spoke about in class where people where asked to report what they were doing during 9/11. In general, people often changed their stories completely without even realizing it, kind of like provoked confabulation. What I find interesting about confabulation is its connection to people with amnesia and brain damage. Prior to reading this post, I was under the impression that amnesia is just the lack of being able to retrieve memories stored in either the short term or long term memory stores. Learning that people with amnesia can also produce false memories in detail changes the way I view amnesia and its effects on people who suffer from it.

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