Varieties of Confabulation

On 28th May, Elisabetta Lalumera organised a workshop on Confabulation and Epistemic Innocence at the Department of Psychology, University of Milan Bicocca.




First speakers of the day were Lisa Bortolotti and Sophie Stammers from project PERFECT who presented a picture of confabulation where clinical and non-clinical cases are continuous and have a similar structure.

Bortolotti talked about epistemic costs and benefits of confabulation. She argued that we should distinguish between innocent and guilty instances of confabulation depending on whether the person confabulating has access to the information that ground an epistemically less problematic explanation and on whether the ill-groundedness of the explanation spreads to the person's further beliefs.

Stammers focused on the question why we confabulate. Do we aim to provide a causal theory about what is going on—as recently was argued by Max Coltheart? Or are we imposing meaning and attempt to develop a narrative understanding of the relevant events—as suggested by Örulv and Hydén? She argues that both accounts get something right about confabulation.


Sophie Stammers


Andrew Spear (Grand Valley State University) discussed the phenomenon of gaslighting as an instance of confabulation which is not epistemically innocent because (1) it does not make the acquisition of true beliefs more likely and (2) it does not enhance the coherence of the self-concept.

In gaslighting both the perpetrator (gaslighter) and the victim confabulate. The core feature of the phenomenon is that the gaslighter undermines the victim’s self-trust. Such a goal is pursued by manipulating and deceiving. The motive of the gaslighting is to destroy the possibility of disagreement in order to challenge the victim’s perception of herself as a locus of autonomy.

Spear argued that all gaslighting has an epistemic dimension. The method of the gaslighter involves providing false but compelling evidence for the victim's lack of understanding. The victim needs to decide whether the gaslighter is more trustworhty than her own cognitive faculties.

The gaslighter tells himself and the victim a story to cover up his real motivations: “This is really the best thing for her”. The victim tells herself a story about the gaslighter having her best interests at heart. This creates an epistemically poisonous feedback loop. In this case, then, Spear argued, the confabulatory explanations victims and perpetrators engage in are not epistemically innocent because they do not deliver any epistemic benefit.


Andrew Spear


Anna Ichino (Bar Ilan University) focused on the form of confabulation that occurs in superstitious or magical thinking and in conspiracy theories. Superstitious thinking departs from scientific thinking (e.g. does not rule out action at a distance) and sees meanings, reasons, and agency where there is none. Core features of confabulation are falsity or ill-groundedness, lack of decitful intentions, motivational elements, gap-filling role. Superstitious thinking shares these four core features: beliefs or practices are ill-grounded, but there is no intention to deceive.

People have motivational reasons to confabulate: (a) they are motivated to confabulate rather than saying “I don’t know”, and (b) they are motivate to form a confabulation with a specific content (e.g. explanation that implies that one is competent). Motivation of type ‘a’ is related to gap filling.

Superstitions and confabulations are equally characterised by the search for coherence beyond the evidence available to us. The gaps we want to fill in confabulation and superstition are explanatory gaps, and the explanations we tend towards are those that feature reasons. So the causal explanations we prefer are those that are psychological and mentalistic.

Ichino argued that superstitious thoughts are better interpreted as imaginings rather than beliefs—based on the view that they are not constrained by evidence and are responsive to our will; they are locally coherent and selectively integrated; and they can motivate action.

Finally, Ichino considered whether we can still talk about epistemic innocence if we think of superstitious thoughts as imaginings. She concluded that we can do that, as long as either we characterise the epistemic faults of superstitious thoughts as metacognitive errors (we do not realise that they are imaginings) or we come up with epistemic norms that apply to imaginings and identify where the faults might be (not all stories are equally good).


Anna Ichino



Svetlana Bardina (Moscow) presented her work on epistemic benefits of confabulation starting from the concept of mundane reason which consists of basic principles and assumptions we all endorse although we may never explicitly express them. Such assumptions make people feel ontologically secure and are necessary for any learning or argumentation to take place.

Examples of application of mundane reason are varied. In general people need to assume that they have a coherent self-concept and that the world is largely consistent. This ensures ontological security—when that is threatened, then cognitive capacities are compromised and mental health issues ensue. People are more interested in preserving consistency than in avoiding endorsing claims that might get them into trouble, as research on the behaviour of crime suspects shows.

Confabulation is a response to the threat to mundane reason. Bardina used a study by Bartlett on memory as an example. Bartlett asked people to reproduce some stories multiple times at different time intervals and found that people committed acts of omission (forgetting details) and transformation (changing the stories). Transformations are instances of confabulations, where people made stories more realistic given their cultural background and filled explanatory gaps.


Svetlana Bardina


Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini (New York) argued that in some types of confabulation the report does not only occur to causally explain but also to justify choices. That makes it plausible that confabulations are produced by an argumentative reasoning mechanism (Mercier and Sperber 2011). Thus, confabulations are aimed at gaining epistemic goals such as attaining truth.

Bergamaschi Ganapini talked about the view that confabulation is due to a drive for causal understanding and commented that, although the view can account for some cases of confabulation, it is silent about motivating reasons, those reasons that justify choice.

The hypothesis is that we rely on the argumentative reasoning mechanism to provide justification for your choices and because the mechanism has been selected for checking the reliability of other people’s reasoning it is insensitive to the poor quality of our own arguments. With our own arguments what we want to do is confirm the things we already believe. So the mechanism has epistemic costs and is responsible for various biases.

However, the mechanism is beneficial when used in the appropriate environment: for instance, when we approach reasoning tasks in groups and with an open mind. Confabulation itself can be beneficial when it provides reasons for a belief we have that is true—because it prevents us from second-guessing ourselves and it delivers some epistemic stability, enabling us to keep our status as testifiers.


Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini


The workshop was extremely interesting in that it offered different philosophical perspectives on confabulation in a range of relevant contexts.

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