Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions

If you asked someone why she bought a particular car, or went to particular college, or worked in a specific job, without hesitation, she’d give you a reason why:

“I’m a lawyer, because I like to read and write. I believe in the legal system and I know I can make a difference helping people defend their rights.”

But that explanation is probably wrong. Or, at a minimum, at least partially wrong. Not because the person who gave the explanation is a liar. But because we have no idea why we do what we do.

(Likely better explanation: it’s the most prestigious, high-paying job that I could get with good test scores, a philosophy degree, and no science background.)

As humans, we are at the same time terrible at understanding why it is that we do what we do and very confident in the quality of our explanations for why we do what we do. In short, people are very good at confabulations, but not so good at explanations. Fiery Cushman, psychology professor at Harvard, wrote an excellent synopsis for Edge about the ubiquity of confabulations. He wrote:

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.

Some of the most famous examples of confabulation come “split-brain” patients, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected for medical treatment. Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body’s behavior (“I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!”).

Cushman goes on to explain that most of our confabulations aren’t quite so extreme as the ones we see in split-brain patients. If it were so obvious that all of us were going around telling each other lies that were on their face absurd, no one would believe anything anyone told them and our communication wouldn’t be very effective. We’d know we were living in a complete world of fiction.

Instead, rather than viewing all of our explanations as bald-faced lies, it’s better to look at all of our explanations for why we do what we do as partial fictions. There’s an element of truth to our conscious understanding of why we live our lives the way we do, and there’s an element that we either understand poorly or don’t understand at all. Consciousness touches on some of our real motivations, but swimming beneath the surface there is always more going on.

Our brains have evolved over 3.5 billion years. The most rudimentary forms of consciousness have only been around for less than 10% of that time. Conscious self-reflection – the type of awareness that makes us think of ourselves as humans – has only really been around for less than .1% of that time. Most of what makes our brain what it is comes from the older bits. The newer bits were layered on top at the end. So it’s natural that the conscious parts of our brain only really explain part of the broader story.