Moral Confabulation: What is it and why does it matter?

Given the fact that the term is not widely used and that this site now is the first google entry for “moral confabulation” (not that there is any real competition), the responsible thing to do is to properly define moral confabulation and summarize previous research.

What is moral confabulation?

Confabulation is a well studied phenomenon in psychology.  It refers to the formation of false beliefs or perceptions due to some “imperfection” of the brain.  I put “imperfection” in quotes because psychology is consistently proving that confabulation is the norm, not the exception.  Rational beliefs that we have reasons for may be considered more legitimate, but irrational beliefs may actually be more psychologically functional.  Given how negative emotion is stronger than positive emotion, it is not necessarily functional for us to see the world as it truly is.   Consider this video on synthetic happiness by Dan Gilbert:

Synthesizing happiness, even if it’s a trick of our minds, works.  Confabulation often serves the purpose of helping us synthesize happiness.  We synthesize beliefs that may not accurately reflect reality, but which feel good.  Our moral intuitions are part of this “emotional immune system” which keeps us happy and functional.

Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen illustrated this in the moral/political realm in a 2003 paper where he surveyed liberals and conservatives as to their preference for generous or stringent welfare policies.  In the absence of knowledge about whether the policies were supported by Democrats or Republicans, liberals supported generous welfare policies and conservatives supported stringent welfare policies.  However, a liberal who learned that Democrats supported stringent policies was likely to support the stringent policy and a conservative who learned that Republicans supported generous policies was likely to support generous policies.  Further, they confabulated (synthesized or made up) the reason for this support as being based on the details of the proposal or their philosophy of government rather than on the fact that this was their parties’ belief.

What if we didn’t confabulate?  A person would be left with the correct but disturbing belief that they blindly follow their party.  While it might be true, that belief isn’t very complimentary and we have a word for people who don’t avoid having these emotionally negative beliefs….the word is depressed.

Moral confabulation is simply the study of confabulation in the moral realm.  We are constantly making judgments about things as morally good or bad, right or wrong.  However, we sometimes don’t actually know the real reason why we make these judgments.

Why does it matter?

One could study food confabulation and the fact that people believe things taste good or bad when 80% of taste is actually a result of smell.  However, somehow I don’t think many people would care why food really tastes good or bad as there are no consequences of taste, unless you are a food manufacturer.

On the other hand, moral confabulation has important negative consequences.

  • Increased Group Conflict – It feels good to bolster your group and feel morally superior to the other group.  Fighting the cold war feels better when you can think of the USSR as the evil empire.  Liberals enjoy demonizing conservatives and vice versa.  It’s fun…but the conflicts continue and lead to bad policy (due to liberal vs. conservative acrimony) and bad lives (oppressed Palestinians and insecure Israelis).
  • Poor Choices – It is easy to confuse the policy choice which feels good with the policy choice that leads to the best outcome.  Consider a hypothetical case where 10 terrorists kill 1000 Americans.  These 10 terrorists then decide to hide in a village which we can bomb, killing the 10 terrorists, but also 3 innocent villagers.  These 3 villagers have 30 relatives who will then become terrorists if we do this.  Depending on your emotional makeup, it may feel especially wrong to let these 10 terrorists go unpunished or it may feel especially wrong to kill 3 innocent villagers.  But the important thing to notice about this scenario is that your feelings have nothing to do with making America safer.  However, I’m betting that if you are honest with yourself, you are much more susceptible about arguments to justify why reducing terrorism depends upon whichever choice seems less ‘wrong’ to you.  It is moral confabulation to believe that your decision is based on reducing terrorism and not on following whichever moral intuition feels most just.  In cases where the prudent decision is the decision which is also unjust, moral confabulation is bound to lead to poor choices.

Our hope is that popularizing the term will allow it to go from being an academic term to one which enters regular culture.  Perhaps conscious awareness of the phenomenon will lead to less division in the world and more prudent choices, as people consciously attempt to avoid the phenomenon.  It is neither a liberal or conservative phenomenon and anyone who makes judgments routinely confabulates.  You can help in this effort by mentioning the term to your friends or writing about it on your facebook page or blog.

What previous research exists?

I did not invent the term moral confabulation.  I don’t think even the people who first used the term moral confabulation invented it as moral confabulation is implicit in the study of processing biases, intuition, ingroup bias, balance theory, cognitive dissonance, and numerous other areas of social psychology that are as old as the discipline itself.  However, I would point the reader to this article by Jon Haidt (with Selin Kesebir), whose moral intuitionist perspective is well cited in current moral psychology research.  It’s a fairly current overview of much of the research on this topic in psychology.

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