Fiction, confabulation and lying

You might have noticed in the last two or three days that This American Life has retracted the story exposing all the evil and destructive activities at Foxconn, the manufacturing plant in China that makes Apple products. It’s not that Apple or Foxconn are without blame, but it seems that the writer of the original article fabricated a great deal of his exposé, presumably to make it more immediate and a better story. Yesterday, when the new iPad was being first sold in the Apple Stores, there was a call to boycott those stores based on the poor treatment of workers at Foxconn; but how much of that poor treatment was pure fiction?

This exposure to fabrication as if it was truth is infesting the American way of life. Look at politics where the Republicans are challenging a sitting President that they have fabricated to make themselves look good. I’m sure that someone will point out that the level of mendacity during some historical period was just as bad  as it is now, but there is a huge difference. Today we have video of most of these events and moments and the video does not match the rhetoric. A candidate gets out there and attacks the President for not once doing such-and-such even though there is clear evidence that the President has done such-and-such repeatedly. So today an out-and-out lie in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary is an accepted political tactic.

Then there’s Fox News that is openly biased and still persists in calling themselves Fair and Balanced.

I have for many years held the position that it is all fiction. Even when an author is attempting to write about real events in what is called non-fiction, the author is selecting, arranging, emphasizing, and concluding about real-life events using the same techniques and creating the same results as in fiction. So-called non-fiction is just fiction that is a little closer to what went on in “real life.”

Now we learn that non-fiction is even more fictional than we thought. Through a process called confabulation in psychology, our brains have huge holes in our memory that we automatically fill-in with plausible stories we make up unconsciously. This sounds a lot like creative non-fiction. A lot of the studies in confabulation came from observations of people who, for whatever reason, had the two hemispheres of their brain separated. The thing is, the speech center is only on one side of the brain and the eyes (and hands) communicate with the opposite side of the brain (there is crossover but it can be controlled in the study). So the classic study is to show a man a picture of a naked woman held on the side opposite the speech center and ask him what he sees. The man will say he sees nothing but he will blush. Show him a picture of a tree and ask him what it is; he will not know but ask him to draw what he sees and he will draw a tree.

Studies such as these interrupt the ability of the brain to express a narrative based on observations. However, when the photo or the picture of the tree is moved to the side where speech is controlled, the test subject suddenly expresses an involved story of why he didn’t see it at first (I thought it was my sister and I didn’t want to say anything).

We learned long ago that memories only last a few years and then fade away. So how do you remember things from your childhood? First, you don’t:  what you remember is the last time you remembered or were reminded of the childhood event. Second, you might only remember a snippet of the original event but your brain automatically fills in the missing pieces with a plausible story and you are believe that story until it too fades away and perhaps yet another story is fabricated around the event in you brain.

So look at the persistence of fiction in the lives of human beings. Is it any wonder that political figures openly lie without any concern for the truth. Psychology teaches us that even when we are convinced of the truth, we are actually making up stories to keep the snippets we remember contained in a narrative that seems reasonable to us. People who are convinced that Obama is a muslim terrorist have those facts imprinted on their brains and someone else’s truth isn’t going to dissuade them.

Of course the politicians who continually misrepresent the President are helping to keep the confabulation alive. Lying just works too good to not embrace it, I guess.

4 thoughts on “Fiction, confabulation and lying

  1. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists are a perfect example of confabulation. There are a few observations that don’t fit the official narrative. What the conspiracy theorists have done is to consciously or unconsciously create a narrative that is consistent with the anomalies: the plane’s tail should have damaged the upper floors of the Pentagon but since video shows them intact, it must not have been a plane but probably a missile fired in secret by the neocons to give them a good reason to invade Iraq and grab all the oil for the New American Empire.

    Yeah, that’s the ticket …

    Incidentally, even if I did believe these conspiracies myself, I would never attribute to George W. Bush sufficient intelligence to be involved in them. Cheney is another story and he might be considered for taking Demjanjuk’s place now that there is a vacancy.


    1. Good points all.

      The irony is that the mendacity and secrecy of the Bush Administration itself created fertile soil for the fetid plants of 9/11 urban legends to grow. Whereas all Obama did was be born a different color from our oh-so-wise slaveowning Founders while the Tea Party is busy rewriting reality.


  2. Great article on a very relevant matter.

    I don’t think the problem is necessarily that we may believe lies; the more important thing is to be open to correction. That there were embellishments in the story about the Chinese sweatshops doesn’t mean that the labor abuses aren’t real. We simply need to understand what the actual picture is. This is what critical thinking does: hone our view of “truth” so that we’re at least in constant approach of it.

    Is this really the same approach to inquiry taken by those who claim that Obama is not a natural-born citizen? I’m hard-pressed to tell whether the people that promote this racist conspiracy theory believe it’s “true” in any meaningful way, or if they’re just trying to stir up trouble by keeping people’s attention focused on anything that puts the President in a bad light. Have any of the birthers’ dismal failures in the courtroom made them reconsider their suspicions about Obama’s provenance? So why should we consider that theirs is a sincere search for truth?

    Let’s not be partisan about this. During George W. Bush’s administration, certain elements on the Left concocted an incoherent conspiracy theory about Bush & Cheney being behind the 9/11 attacks. My opinion that the Inside Job theory is nothing more than a slew of factoids, speculation, and wild accusations is probably beside the point. People don’t affirm such wild notions because of facts and evidence.


    1. I heard an interview where a birther told the reporter that it’s been proven that Obama was born in Kenya … Obama’s wife admitted it in an interview last year with Barbara Walters … or something like that.

      The politicians who continually raise the question about Obama’s birth place (which is immaterial anyway) are the liars, but the citizens who believe it’s true are the confabulators. We all know that Michelle didn’t say her husband was born in Kenya but there are many non-critical thinkers that are convinced he wasn’t born in Hawaii … after all, they heard the proof on Fox News. Right?


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