Truth or Confabulation
“When campaigning for vice president in 2012, Paul Ryan, now Speaker of the House of Representatives, was asked if he had run a marathon. He replied that he had completed one 26.2 mile race in less than three hours: ‘two hours and fifty something’. Unfortunately for him, the race, in 1990, was timed by computer and easily accessible on the internet. His time was actually over four hours.” Ole Holsti, Professor International Affairs, Emeritus, Duke University. Read in The Economist.
I share this not to disparage Paul Ryan. He seems like a competent fellow who may be able to get something done in Washington. It’s the distortion of fact I find troubling. For most people, completing a marathon is a major achievement worthy of respect and admiration. Why is it necessary then to make it seem even better through a significant alteration of fact about the most important detail…how long it took?
Of course, I could cite countless other examples of failures of fact from well-known people from every walk of life. The quest to appear better than we are leads to all kinds of factual manipulations. Often, as in the case of Ryan’s boast, the truth is easily discovered by anyone with an internet connection.
My father had a name for oft-repeated lies and distortions a person shares about themselves…confabulation. I remember well the intent look in his eye and harsh tone of his voice when he discussed a confabulator and the problems they cause. While writing this I looked up the actual meaning of the word for the first time and confirmed that my father knew his definitions. Confabulation: an unconscious process of creating a narrative that the narrator believes is true but that is demonstrably false.
Confabulation comes about as you continue to share something about yourself, and with each telling, the “narrative” makes your accomplishment, and thereby, you, sound better and better. You want to believe the narrative is true and after you’ve recounted it many times…you do. This is why we see so many people continuing to defend their lies even after being shown the actual facts of the situation. In their minds, the facts are irrelevant since they believe so strongly in the truth of what they said.
A bit of puffery about how fast you ran a marathon isn’t such a big deal in and of itself. But at what stage does confabulation become a problem? If you can convince yourself that you ran more than 25% faster than you actually did, can you convince yourself the cost of some project will be 25% less than the facts show it will be? Or 25% more?
At what point does inflating your resume or work history move from an innocent mistake to a firing offense? If you have a reputation for confabulation, at what point do the people you work with and manage realize that nothing you say can be believed until they check the facts? Even worse for you is the general lack of trust confabulation engenders. If someone often mentions their Harvard years when they dropped out during their first semester what else are they misleading me about?
If you have a confabulator working for you, beware. If you oversee managers who confabulate, beware even more. Just imagine how your message to them is transformed as they pass it along to others…with “modifications” of the facts..
I’ve noticed that the people who most often say “trust me” are the ones you can least likely trust. They are the ones who frequently have you rushing to the internet or other resources to check their facts. Perhaps they really believe what they’re sharing is factual but that doesn’t make it so. And if it’s you that confabulates often and who regularly tells people to trust you…