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Avoiding Confabulation, at Christmas and with Consumers

When one of my sons was in 5th grade, he was struggling with the existence of Santa Claus. He asked, "Mom, is Santa real?"  

It's a tough moment as a parent. Rather than answer—and possibly crush him—I asked what he thought.

He said, "Well, the Tooth Fairy can’t be real because seriously, would there really be a little fairy flying around paying for large teeth?  The Easter Bunny can’t be real because a giant rabbit is ridiculous, and where would they get all the candy? But Santa is a person, so he has to be real."

The emotion associated with wanting Santa to be real is strong—so strong that my son came up with a detailed rationale as to why Santa is real, without realizing what he was doing.

This unconscious act of making a decision and then rationalizing a plausible justification for the decision is called Confabulation. It's one of the pervasive Cognitive Biases that get in the way of innovative thinking.

My kid clearly wasn't aware of how he was coming to the decision that Santa was real. Your consumers will do that same thing—and that information is used to make business decisions of your own.

Here are 4 things you can do to avoid succumbing to Confabulation when listening to consumers:

  1. Work with brave consumers who don’t feel the need to defend their own ideas or position.
  2. Find out why without actually asking "Why?" Ask, "Who, What, When and Where?" instead. Then infer the why.
  3. Listen for contradictions—and call them out when you hear them.
  4. Train consumers to recognize when they might be engaging in Confabulation so they can avoid it, as well as challenge others when it sounds as if they are defending choices by rationalizing them.

©2016 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Beth Storz

Beth Storz is President and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go. She co-authored the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward." Beth has been a guest on many innovation podcasts and her work has been featured in media outlets such as HuffPost and Fortune. Beth holds a BS in Business Management from Cornell University and a MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and has worked in brand management at some of the premier consumer packaged goods companies—including Unilever, Kraft and Nabisco. Since joining Ideas To Go, Beth has established herself as a leader in the Innovation landscape and designed and facilitated projects for hundreds of companies—from CPG to financial services to pharmaceuticals.