Confabulated norms

Jonathan Haidt’s excellent and very accessible Happiness Hypothesis describes a fascinating phenomenon called confabulation which, to put it simply means that we often do not really understand the processes that drive our own behaviors, but despite this fact we unhesitatingly and innocently invent fictional explanations.

The concept of confabulation is not new. Nietzsche, for instance, observed it and ridiculed it from a hundred angles. Haidt, however, scientifically isolates the phenomenon, and promotes it from a very probable suspicion to a demonstrated fact: our own explanations of why we do things are often pure speculation. I can testify as a usability tester that we also confabulate how we do things.

Basically, any tacit mental process — any activity of the mind that cannot speak for itself — will be spoken for by the part of the mind that verbalizes, knows only verbalization and refuses to consider real anything that is not verbalized.


All this is fascinating enough, but I’m interested in something far more practical.

I’m interested in that next step we take when we accomplish something really admirable.

We ask: “How was that accomplished?”

And we confabulate an answer: “I followed my method.”

The confabulated method becomes a norm — a best practice — and is then imposed on others.

After all this method has been shown to be effective. It is a reliable route to success.


Sometimes this imposition of method is resisted on the grounds that the full context is not being considered. It is not applicable to certain types of problems (this method will not be effective in this situation), or, less commonly, to certain temperaments of practitioners (this method might work great for you, given your cognitive style and background, but it might not be as helpful to this other person who is different from you in many ways.)

But confabulation opens up a whole other can of worms. Maybe the method didn’t cause the success. Maybe the method enabled some other tacit process to unfold in its own mysterious way. Maybe the method simply didn’t harm the tacit process, but gave it some cover of respectability. Or maybe the tacit processes happened despite the method. OR — maybe the method actually diminished the result, but not so completely that it ended in failure.


Think about how decisions are made in most organizations. A group of people sit around in a room and try to verbalize what ought to be done. The group wants to verbally understand what is about to happen. The groups wants to know what will be done, how it will be done and why it can be expected to work.


I’ve been reading literature from the field of Science and Technology Studies. Practitioners of STS use ethnographic research methods to watch how science is actually done. What they see confirms what Thomas Kuhn also saw: Science tends to suppress much of the experience and behavior of scientists, and to emphasize the discoveries — not only in scientific writing, but also in accounts of how science is done. The histories of science are rewritten in such a way that progress to the present appears straight and steady.


Textbooks, however, being pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science, have to be rewritten in whole or in part whenever the language, problem-structure, or standards of normal science change. In short, they have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution, and, once rewritten, they inevitably disguise not only the role but the very existence of the revolutions that produced them. (Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions)


On June 2, 1881, in the little village of Pouilly-le-Fort in Beauce, Louis Pasteur defeated a terrible disease of sheep and cows, called anthrax. A friend of Pasteur’s gives this account: “Pouilly-leFort is as famous today as any other battlefield. Monsieur Pasteur, a new Apollo, was not afraid to deliver oracles, more certain of success than that child of poetry would be. In a program laid out in advance, everything that was to happen was announced with a confidence that simply looked like audacity, for here the oracle was pronounced by science itself, that is to say, it was the expression of a long series of experiments, of which the unvarying constancy of the results proved with absolute certainty the truth of the law discovered” (Bouley: 1 883, p. 439). The strategy was conceived entirely in advance; Pasteur concocted it and had every detail figured out; it went according to plan, following a strict order of command from Pasteur to the sheep by way of his assistants and the caretakers. (Latour, The Pasteurization of France)

The cash value of this idea?

What we understand to be scientific is not actually how science is accomplished.

My position is that the same is true in nearly every sphere of human activity, and doubly so wherever creativity happens. This includes education, management, design, social research — basically area of life where people are especially maniacal about method and most aggressively impose processes, standards, protocols and norms of every kind on one another.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. New ideas are conceived in intuitive leaps.
  2. The leaped-to ideas are tested in some way or another, artificially or in actuality.
  3. The leaps that pass the test are considered leaps forward to a goal.
  4. The leap forward is then traced backwards and rationalized. Reason creeps bit by bit from the goal to the origin, and attempts to account for the distance traversed in an unbroken chain of explanations.
  5. Then cause and effect are reversed. The story of the leap is confabulated. It is retold as a story of a steady and rational creeping forward toward a goal.
  6. The story makes perfect sense, and is accepted as the true account of the success.
  7. The creeping story is then formalized into a method, and imposed as a norm.
  8. Further attempts at progress are evaluated against their similarity to the proven method.
  9. Those who have strong belief in the method and who follow it faithfully produce respectable but unspectacular results. Those who ignore the method and flaunt that fact win little institutional support. Those who play the method game, but who leave themselves intuitive freedom win the most success.


I’ve had the unnerving experience of being forced to improvise when method failed, and succeeding — but discovering after that methods were attributed to my success, and that nothing I could say would persuade those who saw method where there was none that my success was fortunate (and easily could have been otherwise) and that none of it had a thing to do with following method. Had my improvisation failed, there is no doubt in my mind it would have been blamed on my deviation from method.


I think most methods are sheer chickenshit (in the technical sense).

I think most successes are accomplished by what most people would call bullshit. “Eureka” moments. Apples hitting the head. Ideas in the shower.

The key is entirely in testing — to establish that the leap is a good one — and then in the rational creep backwards to account for why the idea makes sense — but NOT as the method for how it was accomplished!


People who refuse to leap out of methodological conscience are depriving themselves of the pleasure of creativity. They limit themselves to incremental innovation.

People who leap without testing the leap deprive their sponsors of reasonable assurance. There’s nothing wrong with jumping to conclusions. All creative conclusions — good and bad — are jumped to. The key is to test them before acting on them. Whether they turn out for the better or for the worse, any untested leap is reckless.

If you rationalize the successful  leaps, figure out what made the leap work, you might discover principles that can fuel future leaps, and you can also integrate the accomplishment into the organizations body of knowledge. There’s value in the creep backwards.

BUT: do not reverse cause and effect and require everyone to demonstrate how they will creep to success before they are permitted to move.


If you hate dumb puns stop reading now.

The principled condemnation of intuitive leaps… that’s the six-stigma.

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