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.
Now consider flashbulb memories again. Flashbulb memories share characteristics with Anton’s syndrome and Capgras syndrome confabulations. First, both the clinical (Anton’s syndrome and Capgras syndrome) and quotidian (flashbulb) confabulations are obvious falsehoods. Flashbulb memories are highly inaccurate. Someone who, for example, learns of a flashbulb event on a sunny day may later believe that it was raining, and the difference between a sunny and rainy day is obvious.
Moreover, the clinical and the quotidian confabulations can be brought about in reliable circumstances. So these quotidian confabulations have the same properties that make it wrong, absent competing obligations, to provoke clinical confabulations. So I conclude that absent competing obligations, it is also wrong to provoke these quotidian confabulations. In other words, unless you have an overriding reason to ask someone about his or her flashbulb memories, you shouldn’t do so. In doing so, you would be provoking a confabulation.
For example, consider a case of an academic at a party. The academic has just read a paper on flashbulb memories and wants to see one in action just out of curiosity or for her own personal amusement. She provokes one in an unwitting interlocutor, and then moves on. Even though she has a duty not to provoke confabulations, she does so, and since there are no competing obligations, she has done something wrong.
To clarify, the academic is provoking a confabulation knowingly and with no overriding obligation. Someone who does not know about flashbulb memories or their unreliability is exempt from my thesis as is the researcher who has a competing obligation. But absent competing obligations, I argue, it is wrong to provoke flashbulb confabulations. Knowledge about flashbulb memories, I argue, brings the obligation to provoke them wisely, when necessary, and not idly. With knowledge comes responsibility.
So, it might seem counterintuitive to think that it could ever be wrong to ask people about their flashbulb memories; nonetheless, I have argued that in certain cases it is. In certain cases (where there are no competing obligations, and where the evidence about flashbulb memories is known, as is the case for readers of this blog), to ask about a flashbulb memory is to knowingly provoke a confabulation, but with no overriding reason that could justify the provocation.
Another ethical dimension of confabulation became apparent to me shortly after writing this paper. I had a friend who, as the result of extreme trauma, experienced many hallucinations, delusions, and even supernumerary phantom limbs. Being able to talk about them without being challenged was often comforting to her. Philosophical questions arise about how to approach confabulations in others. It has been documented that people do experience less agitation when their confabulations aren’t challenged; I believe that this has implications for how we ought to encounter unprovoked confabulations, but that is a topic for another time, especially as it also involves the relationship between confabulations and beliefs.
I’ll end on a lighter note. My paper on quotidian confabulations is the paper that people outside academia find the most interesting and accessible, so when people ask about what I work on, I tend to describe the argument in this post. To my chagrin, the response I get is almost invariably that people start telling me their flashbulb memories, emphasizing how they cannot possibly be wrong. I might have argued myself out of talking about my ideas in most ordinary contexts!