Just when you thought people couldn't get any sillier or more confused, psychologists uncover yet another innate foible. This one is called "choice blindness," and it refers to the ways in which people are utterly blind to their own choices and preferences. We think we want X, but then we're given Y, and so we invent all sorts of eloquent reasons why Y is actually a much better alternative and how we wanted Y all along. (What sort of fool would choose X?)

Lars Hall and Peter Johansson explain:

For example, in an early study we showed our volunteers pairs of pictures of faces and asked them to choose the most attractive. In some trials, immediately after they made their choice, we asked people to explain the reasons behind their choices.

Unknown to them, we sometimes used a double-card magic trick to covertly exchange one face for the other so they ended up with the face they did not choose. Common sense dictates that all of us would notice such a big change in the outcome of a choice. But the result showed that in 75 per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch, even offering "reasons" for their "choice".

Importantly, the effects of choice blindness go beyond snap judgements. Depending on what our volunteers say in response to the mismatched outcomes of choices (whether they give short or long explanations, give numerical rating or labelling, and so on) we found this interaction could change their future preferences to the extent that they come to prefer the previously rejected alternative. This gives us a rare glimpse into the complicated dynamics of self-feedback ("I chose this, I publicly said so, therefore I must like it"), which we suspect lies behind the formation of many everyday preferences.

This reminds me of the influential work done by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga on split-brain patients, who have had their two hemispheres disconnected. The scientists mischievously flashed different sets of pictures to each eye, which meant each hemisphere was getting a different set of inputs. For example, they would flash a picture of a chicken claw to the right eye and a picture of a snowy driveway to the left eye. The patient was then shown a variety of images and asked to pick out the image that was most closely associated with what they had seen. In a tragicomic display of indecisiveness, the split-brain patient's two different hands pointed to two different objects. The right hand pointed to a chicken (this matched the chicken claw that the left hemisphere witnessed), while the left hand pointed to a shovel (the right hemisphere wanted to shovel the snow.) When the scientists asked the patient to explain his contradictory responses, he immediately generated a plausible story. "Oh, that's easy," he said. "The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Instead of admitting that his brain was hopelessly confused, he wove his confusion into a neat explanation.

Gazzaniga blamed this behavior on "the interpreter" module, located somewhere in the left hemisphere. The basic idea is that the brain is constantly trying to weave a narrative out of the cacophony of reality - it's desperate to make sense of the world. Interestingly, much of this narrative is written in reverse, as we brazenly re-write what just happened. We conveniently forget that we didn't choose that attractive face, or that the shovel has nothing to do with the chicken shed. The ridiculous contradiction isn't suppressed - it's not even noticed. We end up happily justifying choices we didn't make.

Why do we do this? I like to think of these confabulations as necessary half-truths to preserve the unity of the self. At any given moment, our mind is overstuffed with disparate sensations and fleeting thoughts; our different hemispheres want different things and distinct blobs of brain pump out distinct emotions. Why, then, do we feel like a unified person? Why do I feel like "Jonah" and not like a collection of random and stray neural emanations? Because we tell ourselves a story. Just as a novelist creates a narrative, we create a sense of being. The self, in this sense, is our work of art, a fiction created by the mind in order to make sense of its own fragments. In Proust Was A Neuroscientist, I quote Virginia Woolf on this mental process:

Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?


More like this

"Just as a novelist creates a narrative, we create a sense of being. The self, in this sense, is our work of art, a fiction created by the mind in order to make sense of its own fragments."

I love the idea of our Self as a narrative. It makes sense of so much disparate data (I think there's some recursion here!).

Cf. also the work of Bhattacharya and Sheth on insight.

I'd also like to hear your perspective on Libet's work. I don't recall your mentioning him in How We Decide (and I have not read Proust).

Did this study control for poor face recognition/memory? The recent post on the variation in face recognition ability…
suggests some may simply not know the face has been switched. I suspect I would be vulnerable to that memory failure, as I have a hard time recognizing people until I know them pretty well.

I think this is basically right â what we are actually doing as we go thru our day is maintaining a coherent (to us) self image. As if each choice were a meta-choice (âHow would Steve choose in this situation?â). I think this also has to do with the predictive function of the frontal cortex. Attention is based on a delta between sensory input and what our brains are predicting will happen over the next couple of seconds (see Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence). Something that violates that ârollingâ prediction draws attention, and we deal with it, reorienting the predictive model in the process.

There has to be some cognitive cost to updating the predicted/projected context, so we prefer or default to choices and actions that maintain consistency with what we previously thought would happen. Thus rationalization, and choice blindness. Itâs easier than more closely and consciously monitoring the environment all the time, or engaging in deep thinking (major interrupt) in order to handle contexts that appear to have less predictive reliability. And our brains love easy and consistency.

Ah, The Explainer! What would we do without it? (Actually, don't answer that. The Explainer will rush in to fill the void posed by that question. Ask a question, answers pour forth. Still, as one human to all you other humans reading this, I love our brains. They're kind of gorgeous even when they're silly!)
Ah, and science itself is an Explainer, which brings up a nifty Feynman quote: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
Jonah -- I loved your explanation of how you believe "self" is maintained via a story...a sort of personal narrative tapestry. It's an Explanation "I" happen to agree with. (Our "weaves" totally run in the same direction on that subject. And hopefully we believers aren't just full of chicken poop...)
Does anyone know if our neurons are sort of "coded for continuity"? Are they designed to maintain this personal continuity? Are we thus hardwired for continuity?

By Tracy Koehler (not verified) on 25 Apr 2009 #permalink

So glad I found your blog and going to run out and get your book (How We Decide) tonight.

I am visiting NYC for the weekend and for reading material on the plane brought along a pile of old NY Times Magazines that I hadn't read over the last 6 months or so. Luckily, I stumbled upon the "Questions for" feature in which you are interviewed 12/14/08. Great interview.

I too went to Columbia undergrad and now do research/writing in the field of gluten-intolerance. Am fascinated by the psychiatric ramifications of gluten ingestion by those who are allergic to it. It can act as an opiate in certain people.

Anyway, I am always intrigued to learn more about the functioning of the brain and your writing is very accessible to eveyrone.

Looking forward to keeping up with your excellent blog and referring people over here. Many thanks for what you do!

This sounds so right on the money. Still I find that I'm having a problem with the realization that I'm a fictional character.

By LionDancer (not verified) on 25 Apr 2009 #permalink

"The scientists mischievously flashed different sets of pictures to each eye, which meant each hemisphere was getting a different set of inputs. For example, they would flash a picture of a chicken claw to the right eye and a picture of a snowy driveway to the left eye."

I believe these studies were performed by having the participant fixate centrally and presenting information to the left and right visual fields.

The retina in each eye projects to both the left and right hemispheres at the same time. [Specifically, the "inside" or nasal retina sends information to the contralateral hemisphere while the "outside" or temporal retina sends information to the ipsilateral hemisphere.]

Information presented in the left visual field (while the eyes are fixed straight ahead) is initially processed in the right hemisphere in intact brains. Information presented in the right visual field (while the eyes are fixed straight ahead) is initially processed in the left hemisphere in intact brains. When the corpus callosum is severed in patients, the visual information processing cannot be "shared" or modified by processes in the other hemisphere.

You and Carl Zimmer making *exactly* the same Introductory Psych error in the same 14 days? Surprising, to say the least...…

By Michael Anes (not verified) on 26 Apr 2009 #permalink

fascinating article, Jonah.
this could read as the history of philosophy - explaining and bulwarking choices we didn't make. and that being said, there is something deceptive not only about the narrative-I, hyped up on self consistency, but as philosopher/theorist Avital Ronell points out in works like "Crack Wars" and "The Telephone Book", the private-I who investigates the narrative is always already on a drug of its own. writing about the writing of Walter Benjamin, Avital pens the following:

"Benjamin takes an injection of a foreign body (Baudelaire's Les Paradis artificiels) in order to express his inner experience. this is by no means an atypical gesture. To locate "his" ownmost subjectivity, Thomas de Quincy cited Wordsworth. these texts are on each other. a textual communication based on 'tropium'."

and while Avital's work is probing literary, as your brilliant conclusion above about narration points out, the leap to the real (?) I never lands us that far off the page.

nikki @

I'm surprised that this seems to surprise you so, Jonah. While observations need experimental verification, I'd think that the above outcomes only begin to support common observation. Beyond the need to narrate our lives, we have the need to make the story to meet three criteria: 1) to meet societal definitions of consistency; 2) to imply an anxiety-reducing degree of control over one's fate; and 3) to turn out to have a happy ending. To fail at "believing" one or more of the three can lead to reduced functioning due to depression or worse.

It seems promising to suggest that Sperry and Gazzaniga pointed up the daily functional corrollates that underpin 1 & 2. #1, on this more fundamental level, is "to check sensory input against stored reality-models and to indentify most viable available alternative upon which to proceed." #2 remains much the same.

In general, when we refer to something as "thinking" we expect an element of self-consciousness, and as Descartes would have it, vice versa -- we are able to form a presumption of our own selfhood (only) as we undertake the thinking process. The experimental subjects who did not confabulate an explanation presumably had formed a thought that they were being shown the wrong face. They must have had a recollection (memory & misremembering are other ways of "self"-creating/affirming) to make self the organizing principle of thought in this instance. The subjects who confabulated an answer seem to have started with the thought (i.e., the suggestion) and worked toward a self.

Whatever permits this dynamic between thought and identity would seem to confer a pretty powerful evolutionary advantage -- a way quickly to create lots of intellectually unique individuals with lots of thoughts that aren't necessarily quite like the thoughts of others, and a way of permiting from time to time conflation of subjective and objective (a state associated with inspiration and invention). Like any evolutionary driver, it isn't perfect. The confabulators may fool themselves (and sometimes millions of others) into unhappiness or catastrophe. At the same time, however, confabulator can be another word for inventor, artist, philosopher, scientist.

It is a human characteristic to invent fictions of all kinds, myths, paintings, novels, plans, experiments. (Maybe it's uniquely human, I don't know. Do verbal gorillas, for example, give evidence of inventing fantasies?) In any event, complex fictions go beyond the kind of confabulation disclosed in the experiment, but I wonder if they arise from the same mechanism. The ability to conceive something not true is a powerful capability, and except in pathological cases, seems to demand a pretty definite self.

Some of us tell ourselves nicer stories than others. What was William Parente's story that led him to kill his family and then himself recently?
Eckhart Tolle, at the time in graduate school at Cambridge, relates that he awoke one night feeling alienated and having a deep loathing of the world and his own existence. "I cannot live with myself any longer", was the thought that kept running through his mind. He became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. " "Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the 'I' and the 'self' I cannot live with." "Maybe," I thought, only one of them is real." "
He was so stunned by this realization that his mind stopped, "I was fully conscious but there were no more thoughts." An intense fear took over which he did not resist and finally fell asleep. He awoke the next day still in a state of non-thought but blissfully at peace and so he remained for three months and so it continues.
My aunt at 87, on the other hand, is losing her story due to dementia and is also terrified because she beleives that her story is her real self. She has not had ET's realization about her real self. How many of us know the real self that is always there and is not our story?

I cannot cite them, but there are many studies involving posthypnotic suggestion in which people instantly and flawlessly provide rational explanations of 'their' decisions and actions, all of which are directly implanted by the hypnotist. Interestingly, those who are unable to provide an explanation typically become very disturbed and need to be re-hypnotized immediately.

BTW, everyone should read Julian Jayne's great classic "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", which was one of the first to state this 'inner self-story' theory of the conscious self. It is also a fabulously good read.

There is a very nice philosophical puzzle here. If our theories of ourselves are indeed just a fictional narrative, and our 'self' is simply a fictional idea - as seems to be the case - do we really exist as free agents? Or are we just a kind of self-referential froth of symbols on the surface of a mechanical, unaware (and therefore non-sentient, so not morally responsible) inner zombie? Not a pretty thought. Fortunately, I think there is a way out of this apparent dilemma, but it is one that requires us to square moral responsibility with physical determinism, a position that many people find logically uncomfortable.

By Pat Hayes (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Correct me if I'm wrong Jonah, but this fictional self-creating that we do in the mind arises from, ironically, a very 'real' part of the brain, the default mode network. While we sometimes ruminate consciously about what am I doing and where is it taking me, these thoughts will arise unbidden when they get the chance (thus the name default) and are presumably there for a purpose. This happens a lot during meditation. This is a fairly recent discovery (the brain parts responsible) and neuroscientists are still asking why do we do this? What is the function of the DMN?

I see few problems mixed in here and there are some attempt to explain below:

At the very beginning: 'offering "reasons" for their "choice"' couldbe explained in the area of Cognitive Dissonance theory: The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors ( It happened in the case of mismatched cards just to avoid the state of psychical dicomfort.

The second: 'the result showed that in 75 per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch'. It's really hard to believe that so many people couldn't recognise it. I wonder if they were really focused on the cards? Or maybe they were just confused and to ashamed to say that it weren't their choices? You know how authority (researcher in this case) can influence analysed person... So they had no other choice than just to justify 'their' choices.

This article reminded me somehow about posthipnotic sugesty - in that case 'programmed' person also justify their actions such as opening window when seeing handkerchief. It's almost like the case of man with disconnected hemispheres. It's really amazing that our brains can make up so ridiculous confabulations just to avoid a bit of uncertainty.

"Why, then, do we feel like a unified person? Why do I feel like "Jonah" and not like a collection of random and stray neural emanations? Because we tell ourselves a story."

Interesting. Are you, by any chance, familiar with the personality theory of Dan McAdams?
He argues that identity is an internalized and constantly evolving life story, a narration of the self that people create to make sense of themselves and their life over time. It unites the many facets of a person, past and present selves to provide coherence and meaning to the person's life. It's a story that tells who a person is.

This reminds me of how people try to create patterns out of random scenarios, like finding pictures in clouds or splatter paint. Everything must have a reason, a pattern, a formula. The idea that humans are logical creatures has created the notion that we must always have logical reasoning behind out actions; nothing can go without explanation. I thought it was interesting that the man with split-brain could not own up to not understanding his actions and reasoning. Even though he was participating in a study in which the experimenters, Sperry and Gazzangia, knew his medical condition, he still felt the need to hide his confusion.
"The basic idea is that the brain is constantly trying to weave a narrative out of the cacophony of reality..." The purpose of this storytelling to explain our actions seems two fold. One part is to find some justification for everyone else's understanding. The second is to create a reason for self-benefit. We can not leave things unexplained, even if we internally know the cause of our actions being unexplainable.

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