In this post, Chris Weigel discusses her paper “Quotidian Confabulations: An Ethical Quandary Concerning Flashbulb Memories,” published in Theoretical and Applied Ethics in 2014. Chris is a professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. She works mainly on experimental philosophy of free will and on cognitive biases.
My conclusion isn’t that we should never ask people about their flashbulb memories, but rather that sometimes asking people about their flashbulb memories is problematic. It’s problematic because flashbulb memories often involve confabulations (i.e., believed, obvious falsehoods), and under certain circumstances, we should abstain from provoking a confabulation.
My conclusion is counterintuitive. It’s counterintuitive to say that in certain cases people should not ask others about flashbulb events. To get to that conclusion, I begin by looking at Anton’s syndrome and Capgras syndrome, two syndromes that involve confabulations. People with Anton’s syndrome think they can see even though they are blind. If you ask someone with Anton’s syndrome about what you look like, they will likely answer you even if you have never met the person before.
People with Capgras syndrome believe that their loved ones are impostors. A person with Capgras syndrome might tell you that their father isn’t really their father despite all evidence to the contrary. If you ask that person how the so-called impostor came to have the right wallet, appearance, demeanor, and memories, the person with Capgras syndrome might begin by telling you a story about how the wallet must have been stolen. People with these syndromes confabulate. That is, they assert falsehoods that they confidently believe, even though others can see that the falsehoods are obviously false and baseless. Also, these particular confabulations can be reliably provoked in certain circumstances: ask an Anton’s patient what they see or ask a Capgras patient about the specific loved ones they believe are impostors, and you’ll most likely get a confabulation.
The next step in the argument is to see that absent competing obligations, it is wrong to provoke a confabulation. Competing obligations include such things as medical research, neuroscientific research, caring for the patient, and so on. A doctor who is talking trying to assess a blind person with Anton’s syndrome might ask that person what they see in the course of a medical evaluation. The importance of accurate medical evaluations entails that provoking a confabulation in such circumstances is not problematic. On the other end of the spectrum, suppose someone sold tickets at a fair to gawkers who wanted to see the confabulating blind person who thinks they can see. This ticket seller’s motives are negative and cruel, and it is fairly easy to see that provoking confabulations in such a case is problematic.
In between are cases where someone provokes a confabulation with no competing obligations (either positive as in the case of the doctor or negative as in the case of the ticket seller). For example, someone might provoke a confabulation out of idle curiosity, to fill a silence with sound, or for no reason at all. In these cases, since there are no overriding obligations like research or diagnosis, provoking a person with Anton’s syndrome or Capgras syndrome to confabulate is problematic.