(picture from Design Monkey)

Some little things make me happy. Like discovering that their is an actual word describing how you feel about certain things.

The word of today is confabulation:

Confabulation, also known as false memory is the confusion of imagination with memory and/or the confusion of true memories with false memories

Chances are, as you work in advertising, that you’ve come accross confabulation many times or even ‘suffered’ from it without even realising it.

It is a rather strange proccess our mind goes through. When people are faced with a problem and given sublte clues on how to solve a problem, they will get to the solution thinking they came up with it on their own. That they had a flash of insight, and most of the time won’t even be able to recall how the idea came to them. Here’s an example:

Its 1931. Norman Maier at the University of Michigan wants to explore how people solve problems. He attaches two cords to the ceiling of his lab and asks people to tie the two ends together. The trick is that the two cords are just far enough apart that, while holding on to one cord, you can’t reach the other cord.

To help participants out, Norman places some objects around the room which people are allowed to use. There are extension cords, poles, clamps and weights. Most people quickly work out that tying an extension cord or a pole to one of the cords solves the problem. These seemingly obvious answers doesn’t satisfy Norman though… he is looking for a specific, simple and elegant solution. (Swing the damn rope).

So what he does is he keeps asking people to come up with new solutions. When they attach the extension cord, he’d say: “OK, now do it a different way.” And he keeps doing this until they run out of solutions. Most people then just stand there – stumped.

When people would run out of solutions, Norman would accidentally brush against one of the ropes and set it swinging. Within minutes of the accident, most people would come up with the new solution themselves: they would attach a weight to the rope and set it swinging. They would then grab the other rope and reach for the swinging rope when it comes towards them and tie them both together.

The twist of this experiment is: when Norman interviews the participants later on and asks them how they thought of swinging the rope 2/3rds came up with their own alternate reasonings!

One person gave an incredibly elaborate explanation: ” I thought of the situation of swinging accross a river. I had an imagery of monkeys swinging from trees. This imagery appeared simultaneously with the solution”

Althout people did remember Maier crossing the room, no-one noticing the rope swinging.


Keith Sawyer in his book group genius, describes confabulation:

People have no trouble coming up with explanations for their behavior after the fact. They believe they had a solitary insight, but the real story is that a social encounter was responsible for the idea.

It is also related to the term ‘priming’

Priming is also an experimental technique by which a stimulus is used to sensitize the subject to a later presentation of the same or similar stimulus. For example, when a subject reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word that starts with tab, the list “primes” the subject to answer table, meaning that the probability that the “primed” subject answers table is higher than for non-“primed” subjects.

So there you have it. As planners, our jobs seem to be about ‘priming’ creative with stimulus and inspiration, just to hear them confabulate that they have come up with the solution on their own and that you have got nothing to do with it 😉

It used to really piss me off when I shared my thoughts in meetings only for someone to take them and pretend it’s their ideas… Now I’ll just feel sorry for them as it means they have a psychologic disorders!

Ok so after a few discussions, it appears I confabulate quite a lot too…

More reading here.

  1. April 20, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Oh my God, you’re so right!

    I resign.

    ; )

  2. Digicynic
    April 21, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Don’t be so hard on yourself Simon.
    Let’s do a job swap instead for a week. I’m sure no one will notice 😉

  3. April 25, 2008 at 12:51 am

    Not sure whether you read that post, but confabulation is not the only way to generate creative ideas… Subliminal stimulus works pretty well too (read here:
    Nice one though…

  4. Digicynic
    April 25, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    The book I’m reading, group genius, the creative power of collaboration lists them all.
    I just picked on confabulation because it cracked me up how we all do it without even realising.
    You’ve got an interesting post there. Although I really don’t buy Derren Brown’s experiment…

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