It seems that we are not as much in control of our selves and our decisions as our subjective experience would suggest. In fact, most of our decisions are made unconsciously by the "elephant" of our unconscious processing (in Jonathan Haidt’s useful metaphor from his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis) for while the main job of the "rider" of conscious awareness, who thinks and feels as if he is in control, is actually to make up justifications of the elephant’s behaviour after the event. These explanations may bear no relation to the actual reasons driving the unconscious processing.
This process, called ‘confabulation’, was first noticed in the 1880s when Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff observed some of his patients making up often impossible stories to cover gaps in their memories caused by previous alcohol abuse. It has also been noticed in people with brain damage and some stroke patients as they concoct elaborate alternative explanations for the effects of their impaired brain function.
You might think that confabulation happens only when the functioning of the brain has been in some way disrupted. However, research suggests that confabulation is something we all do, a lot of the time, because we don’t usually have access to the real (unconscious) reasons why we do things.
For example, Nisbett and Wilson’s classic experiment in 1977 asked people which of four garments laid out from left to right they preferred. 40% of people preferred the rightmost garment – as expected, since people will tend to choose the rightmost item in a series, other things being equal. When asked why they chose that one, the subjects talked about the quality of the weave and the vividness of the colour. But the items were identical! (Nisbett, R.E. and Wilson, T.D. (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review, Vol 84 pp 231-259.)
What’s more, if we change our minds about something, we tend to forget that our original opinion is different – as in Goethals and Reckman’s 1973 experiment (Psyblog: Our Secret Attitude Changes).
Helen Phillips’ illuminating article Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales (New Scientist 07 October 2006) quotes more confabulation studies.
So what are the implications of these findings? They add support to the NLP idea that "why?" is an unproductive question in therapy or coaching; not only are the responses likely to be excuses and justifications, but they probably won’t even be an accurate representation of the person’s real beliefs and decision-making processes.
Also, they suggest that asking "why?" in usability tests will be a waste of time. The same might apply in other types of research like focus groups as well.
What can you do to increase your self-awareness by becoming more aware of when you are confabulating? Reflect, meditate, get other people to explore your reasons through pertinent questioning (as can happen in coaching or an action learning set), practise self-hypnosis (with the intention of listening to your unconscious mind as well as merely giving it suggestions) or keep a learning log or a journal – if the evidence of the beliefs you used to hold is there in black and white, it will be available to your conscious mind to learn from.
It’s worth doing more to get to know yourself. The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson used to say that the reason people had problems was because they were out of rapport with their unconscious minds.