Confabulation [kuhn-fab-yuh-ley-shuhn] is the process in which a memory is remembered falsely. Confabulations are indicative of a complicated and intricate process that can be led astray at any given point during encoding, storage, or recall of a memory. Two distinct types of confabulation are often distinguished. Spontaneous, or primary, confabulations do not occur in response to a cue and seem to be involuntary.

Provoked, or secondary, confabulations occur in response to something external, like a memory test. Another distinction found in confabulations is that between verbal and behavioral. Verbal confabulations are spoken false memories and are more common, while behavioral confabulations occur when an individual acts on their false memories. Confabulated memories of all types most often occur in autobiographical memory. A final characteristic of confabulations is the genuine confidence people have in their false memory, despite evidence contradicting its truthfulness.

Spontaneous confabulations, due to their involuntary nature, cannot be manipulated in a laboratory setting. However, provoked confabulations can be researched in various theoretical contexts. The mechanisms found to underlie provoked confabulations can be applied to spontaneous confabulation mechanisms. The basic premise of researching confabulation comprises finding errors and distortions in memory tests of an individual. Confabulations can be detected by using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott lists: participants listen to audio recordings of several lists of words centered around a theme, known as the critical word. The participants are later asked to recall the words on their list. If the participant recalls the critical word, which was never explicitly stated in the list, it is considered a confabulation. Participants often have a false memory for the critical word.

Confabulations can also be detected using a free recall task, such as a self-narrative task. Participants are asked to recall stories (semantic or autobiographical) that are highly familiar to them. The stories recalled are encoded for errors that could be classified as distortions in memory. Distortions could include falsifying true story elements or including details from a completely different story. Errors such as these would be indicative of confabulations. There is evidence to support different cognitive mechanisms for provoked and spontaneous confabulation. One study suggested that spontaneous confabulation may be a result of an amnesic patient’s inability to distinguish the chronological order of events in his memory. In contrast, provoked confabulation may be a compensatory mechanism, in which the patient tries to make up for his memory deficiency by attempting to demonstrate competency in recollection.

Confabulation of events or situations may lead to an eventual acceptance of the confabulated information as true. For instance, people who knowingly lie about a situation may eventually come to believe that their lies are truthful with time. In an interview setting, people are more likely to confabulate in situations in which they are presented false information by another person, as opposed to when they self-generate these falsehoods. Further, people are more likely to accept false information as true when they are interviewed at a later time (after the event in question) than those who are interviewed immediately or soon after the event. Affirmative feedback for confabulated responses is also shown to increase the confabulator’s confidence in their response. For instance, in culprit identification, if a witness falsely identifies a member of a line-up, he will be more confident in his identification if the interviewer provides affirmative feedback. This effect of confirmatory feedback appears to last over time, as witnesses will even remember the confabulated information months later.

While some recent literature has suggested that older adults may be more susceptible than their younger counterparts to have false memories, the majority of research on forced confabulation centers around children. Children are particularly susceptible to forced confabulations based on their high suggestibility. When forced to recall confabulated events, children are less likely to remember that they had previously confabulated these situations, and they are more likely than their adult counterparts to come to remember these confabulations as real events that transpired.

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