The Need for Closure

Maria Konnikova has an interesting post at The New Yorker about Why We Need Answers.

Uncertainty agitates the human mind. People need and want “cognitive closure.” This means we want an explanation for why things happen the way they do. We want it settled in our mind. And once we find (or invent) that explanation we invest ourselves in it and have a hard time letting go of our belief regardless of evidence to the contrary – politics is filled with nagging examples.

Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster (1994) invented a way to measure our Need for Closure (NFC). Their measure looked at 5 motivational tendencies: preference for order, predictability, decisiveness, discomfort with ambiguity and closed-mindedness. The combined measure of these 5 tendencies tell us where we’re at in our need for cognitive closure in any given situation. The important point in measuring NFC is that when we “rush” (as many of us do) to find closure we biases our choices, we generate fewer hypotheses, we form judgments too early, and we arrest our search for information. And worse, we don’t even realize just how poorly we’ve formed our judgement.

Kruglanski’s research suggest people pass through two stages on their way to cognitive closure. Konnikova writes:

In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly: we “seize” whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible: we “freeze” our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it. (So, for instance, we support policies or arguments that validate our initial view). And once we’ve frozen? Our confidence increases apace.

It’s a self-reinforcing loop: we search energetically, but once we’ve seized onto an idea we remain crystallized at that point. And if we’ve externally committed ourselves to our position by tweeting or posting or speaking? We crystallize our judgment all the more, so as not to appear inconsistent.

I suspect many of you have experienced the highly “crystallized” positions people reach on matters where the evidence, or even their own self-interests (not realized), are to the contrary. People can become so invested in their belief for the sake of politics, or competitiveness, or ego that almost no evidence to the contrary will change their mind. The denial of human caused global warming is one of the best examples. There is always the possibility that approximately 90% of the world’s scientists and about 95% of the climatologists, and many of the world’s major science foundations, are wrong…but what if the experts are actually right! (Hmmm, novel idea.) This, of course, should be the prime consideration of a sensible and free thinking person. Because the consequences for being wrong, for not listening to the scientific community on this, are cataclysmic. And yet we’re speeding (alarmingly fast) down this road of denial toward a wall with our eyes wild open.

In discussing how we might mitigate the negative effects of the NFC in people, Konnikova reports what I would consider the most obvious way most of us deal with people with very closed and crystallized positions: we point out the personal costs. Once you’re able to make a person “see” how their belief or position will personally cost them something–money, health, personal safety, personal reputation, etc–most tend to soften their position and reconsider. (This doesn’t always work I have to admit. I’ve seen more that a few people willing to cut off their nose to spite their face. We can only hope those people are never in leadership positions…wishful thinking I realize.)

For me personally there’s a down side to being able to successfully turn a person’s position through elucidating the personal costs. I’m mostly thinking about big issues that have a national, local, or community impact. If it’s all about reconsidering when there’s a personal costs, then obviously one isn’t thinking about the social costs – the costs to other people or to future generations. One is, well, thinking about themselves, their group or their political self-interests only. This is the stuff of tragedy. History and psychology teach us that this is actually the norm and we shouldn’t be surprised or feel we’re all doomed. But it’s hard not to sometimes.

The ancient historian Thucydides said that people are motivated by fear, honor, and self-interests. And there’s a lot of truth in that. But it never seems to amaze (or shock) me that some people can be motivated only by that.

What is intellectual humility?

Having intellectual humility is important if you’re going to grow intellectually. It’s also, on a more practical note, a precursor for not being considered an arrogant fool. You have to be openminded and prepared to accept you may be wrong.

In examining an argument or claim a lot of us naturally approach it from a specialized angle or paradigm. Many of us have developed specialized knowledge or particular ways of thinking that we consciously and unconsciously apply across a variety of situations. But the world, reality, and life aren’t so specialized or simple. They’re emergent systems. The world is one big complex adaptive system. Understanding that complexity requires multiple perspectives across the knowledge spectrum. And so if we’re not careful our specialized knowledge can blind us to obvious errors and keep us from learning and growing. Abraham Maslow once said, “He is good with the hammer tends to see everything as a nail.” We all know people who see everything as a nail.

Which brings me to an excellent post at BigQuestions Online. Robert Roberts asks, What is it to be Intellectually Humble? It’s an excellent piece worth your attention.

Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open. The process requires that we be able to “listen,” either literally or figuratively, to what others say. If what they say shows them to be superior to us in knowledge, we will be hampered in our learning if our first reaction is to try to show that we know as much as they or more. The process also requires that we be corrigible, that we be open to the possibility that our opinions are in some way misguided. If, whenever our status as knowers is threatened by the specter of correction, we feel that we must prove ourselves to have been in the right, we will have closed off an avenue of knowledge and crippled ourselves as inquirers. It can be particularly galling, if one lacks intellectual humility, to be corrected in a public forum; and the galling can obstruct the process of learning.

A lovely example of intellectual humility comes from Alice Ambrose in a report of experiences she had in the classroom of G. E. Moore, the prominent philosopher, at Cambridge University. She reports that in a series of lectures on the concept of truth Moore would sometimes criticize claims that he himself had made, say in an earlier lecture, with the same attitude one would take “to an anonymous philosopher whose mistakes called for correction.” Also, he would sometimes announce that he was going to skip to another stage in the argument because he did not know how to make the transition logically. Moore seemed to be unconcerned about protecting his status as an important professor at Cambridge because he was so deeply concerned with getting at the truth about truth. His love of knowledge swamped his concern for status, and this intellectual humility made him one of the greater philosophers of the 20th century.

Justice: What is the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel is a celebrity in the world of philosophy and education. He’s a Harvard University philosophy professor who’s world renown for his Justice lectures. He wrote a book to accompany the course and recently he published a book about the moral limits of markets.

The strapline to Sandel’s popular Justice lecture is “What is the right thing to do?” This is the question that’s constantly at the hub of Sandel’s lecture. Student’s are asked to decide what’s the right thing to do about a number of moral dilemmas that individuals and societies face. It’s challenging and intellectually stimulating as students grapple with tough moral problems and are forced to think through issues and ask deep questions about what they believe is the right thing to do.

If there is anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that tough, deliberative thinking is not what most people like to do. It’s work. You have to dig deep and be able to tolerate hovering in uncertainity. There are many tough questions. But not so many easy answers–if there are any answers at all. I realize some of us don’t have time or just don’t want to think about the big questions. It’s easier to just remain disengaged and avoid such tough questions. We risk actually be changed by what we learn. For some people that’s really what keeps them from engaging with ideas honestly and openly. Change isn’t what many of us want to accept. At the heart of philosophy is the willingness to challenge assumptions, especially long held ones. Philosophy requires us to use our own reason. It requires us to stand alone in the lights of our intellectual, emotional, and moral conscience.

Philosophy teaches us that a lot of what we think we know turns out under close scrutiny to be wrong. Or at least highly questionable. We attend lectures like Sandel’s because we want to face those tough questions and be changed by the force of our own understanding.

William James: “By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief…”

William James

William James

“This thoroughly ‘pragmatic’ view of religion has usually been taken as a matter of course by common men. They have interpolated divine miracles into the field of nature, they have built a heaven out beyond the grave. It is only transcendentalist metaphysicians who think that, without adding any concrete details to Nature, or subtracting any, but by simply calling it the expression of absolute spirit, you make it more divine just as it stands. I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament — more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

The way we remember

I’m not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it. – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

No truly honest memoir should begin without the above quote from Charles Dickens. The Shakespeare of English letters knew quite well how fragile and distorted memory can be, especially over time. The distance strains our view and our minds creatively enhance the fading contours and colors at the margins of our memory. We may well feel we vividly remember certain events in our life, but what we usually remember is more the gist, the emotional impact than the particular facts of the event. This is why journalists and writers take notes and quickly write down their thoughts and observations, so they can immediately memorialize, in writing, an event, conversation, or observation for accuracy. Barring that immediate record, we should approach recollections, especially one from many years past, with a good degree of humility and caution.

But even very recent memories, as most of us have experienced, can either be forgotten or distorted when we’re asked to recall them. We’re all expert eyewitnesses to the events of our own life, right? You would think we’d be absolutely sure about what we’ve seen, especially when our mind is focused on the event. But let’s take a very interesting case for examination.

Jennifer Thompson, a student at Elon College, was assaulted and raped in her college apartment one evening. During the rape she intentionally focused on the identity of her attacker so she could identify him latter. She was eventually able to escape. She provided a description to the police and eventually twenty-two year old Ronald Cotton was arrested. Cotton worked at a local restaurant and had a police record. Thompson picked Cotton out of a police line up. Thompson testified at court and fingered Cotton as the man who raped her. Cotton denied this over and over. He was found guilty after only forty minutes of jury deliberation and sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison.

While in prison Cotton overheard inmates saying that another inmate named Bobby Poole had actually raped Jennifer Thompson. Poole resembled Cotton and Poole was also in prison for rape. When Thompson confronted Poole he denied it. But Poole’s conversation with other inmates about raping Thompson was used to get Cotton a new trial.

At the new trial Jennifer Thompson stood roughly fifteen feet away from Poole and Cotton. She, again, identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. The court upped Cotton’s punishment to two life sentences. Not too long after Cotton’s 2nd trial, the new scientific procedure of DNA testing proved that indeed it was Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton, who had raped Jennifer Thompson that night. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton would eventually come together to write a book about this awful miscarriage of justice.

It’s important for us to remember that Jennifer Thompson was a “focused” witness. She was purposely studying the face and build of her attacker and yet she fingered an innocent man over and over. Could we get a better witness than Jennifer Thompson? She had no prior bias or knowledge of Cotton and she was purposely focusing on her attacker for later identification. She was morally certain that Cotton was the man who raped her. And yet she was terribly wrong.

Consider this. About seventy-five thousand police lineups take place every year. Statistics show that between 20% and 25% of the time the eyewitness identifies a suspect in the lineup that the police know isn’t correct. So upwards of 25 out of 100 people are falsely identified by the victim as the suspect in a crime we know they didn’t commit. In experimental studies where people are exposed to mock crimes the eyewitnesses tend to do exactly what Jennifer Thompson did: even though the real suspect isn’t in the lineup they finger someone who best resembles who they remember. Of the hundreds of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence 75% were imprisoned by inaccurate eyewitness identification.

The point of the Jennifer Thompson story is just one among many that shed light on memory “construction.” Basically studies suggest that our memory tends to capture the “gist”–the general features–of what happens and our unconscious mind fills in the details. Hugo Munsterberg sums up memory construction basically like this: You remember the gist, your unconscious mind fills in the details and you believe the results. The salient idea here is how remembering an event, recalling it, can reinforce a false memory, as in the case of Jennifer Thompson. As you think back about a memory and you construct it and believe you’re remembering it correctly you then keep remembering the “constructed” memory, not necessarily what actually happen. You’re not remembering the event, per se, you’re remembering the memory.

In other words, as you recall an event you tend to remember the gist and then you unconsciously “fill in the details” and then you believe the entire memory even though some of the important details are inaccurate or false. Many times, especially in events long past, we remember the gist (and some of the details), but more significantly we remember the emotions involved in the event. And of course the emotions can be the most powerful part of a recalled event, which in-turn can drive us to “construct” more memory which may turn out to be entirely false.

Now why is memory construction or reconstruction this way? Well, studies suggest that memory retention is analogous to how computers store imagines. Computers compress images for storage. This means that only the key attributes of the image are actually kept. When you pull the image up from storage (your memory) the computer (your brain), based on the limited information it has from the compressed file, will predict and fill in small details of the stored image that were not kept. If you were to look at your stored image in a thumbnail size it would “appear” very accurate and clear. However, if you blow up the image you would notice detail errors and bands of solid colors where the computer software (your unconscious mind) predicted wrong.

There is also the issue of memory “addition.” We’ve all had that feeling of recounting a memory and being told, or shown, a part of it didn’t happen, or at least not in the particular way or in the particular event we’re recounting. We’re conflating two events or even adding in color, contour, and actions to our memories from various other related or unrelated events stored in memory. Research has also shown that memories can be implanted through a process of what I’ll describe as priming and suggestion. Our memory, like people in general, is open to manipulation.

Now this post isn’t trying to suggest that you should always doubt your memory. For the most part our memories are fine in getting through life and recalling events. We may not get all the details right and depending on the amount of time that’s past, remembering the gist of what happen is good enough for reminiscing. I think the main point to take from the research on memory is that we should approach our memories with a degree of humility and caution depending on what remembering means. If you’re writing a memoir, or blogging about life, or telling stories over wine then getting the gist and filling in the details is, well, being human-all-to-human. It’s just part of the good sport of life. (You can, of course, enhance the accuracy of your memories by finding supporting evidence and corroborating events with other people.) But if recalling from memory has serious implications you need to be extra cautious and be mindful of the possible errors and distortions that may be present.

Reference links:

On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime

Eyewitness Testimony can be Problematic at Trial

Police Lineups Start to Face Facts: Eyes can Lie

Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Chapter 3, Remembering and Forgetting, of Dr. Mlodinow’s best selling book is the impetus and guide for this post. He has upwards of around 40 sources supporting his discussion of memory. It’s an excellent book! )

Stay passionately curious all your life

kidfrog

The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about prejudices, is that they arrest development; they shut off the mind from new stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude; closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age. — John Dewey

 

The unconscious mind

To some this post might be old news but to others hopefully it’s informative. Over the past decade or so there’s been a revolution in psychology. Research and experimental findings in human psychology suggest that our understanding of the mind and brain are at the cusp of a major turning point or shift. This new dawn in science has been the result of breakthroughs primarily in neuroscience and social science research.

The core finding of this revolution involves our greater understanding of the unconscious mind and how it operates. Research wise we’ve been able to design experiments that manifest the operation of the unconscious mind. These experiments reveal structural biases in our thinking and the weighty influence of the unconscious mind in our everyday actions. It turns out that our unconscious mind is very active in shaping who we are, how we act, and what we become. Far more so than we ever thought. After the waning of psychoanalysis in the later part of 20th century it became taboo to talk about the unconscious mind. But the advances in science have corrected this limited perspective.

It turns out Freud was right. We do have a very active unconscious mind and it does have a big influence on our behavior. But Freud was wrong about what the unconscious was and how it functions. Freud’s view was that the unconscious was hot, wet, primitive, irrational, and seething with anger and lust. The “new” unconscious, the one that scientist are now studying, is “kindler and gentler than that and more reality bound.” Freud of course didn’t have the use of modern experimental methods and technology. His psychology was based primarily on observation and introspection. Within these limitations Freud’s project was fascinating and highly influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. Freud’s psychology is certainly not science in the modern sense, but his ideas are deeply penetrating as literature and philosophy. Stop and consider for a moment the vocabulary Freud gave us for psychoanalyzing other people. Think of words like defense mechanism, repression, libido, displacement, sublimation, condensation, over-determination and many others. Freud’s psychoanalysis isn’t science but it is a useful way for describing human behavior.

With modern technology we can now see into the brain as it operates through the use of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ). We can now watch as blood moves through the brain during cognition, indicating which areas of the brain are in use during an event. Neuroscientists can now say what area of our brain–the reasoning part, the emotional parts involving fear, love etc, etc,–are functioning, or being activated during experiments. The science on this is fascinating. There have been a number of really good books over the past few years that have highlighted what we’ve learned. I’m currently reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. If you have an interest in psychology or if you’re just interested in human nature and how and why people do what they do then you might want to check out some of these recommendations:

The Social Animal

Think Fast, Slow

The Folly of Fools

The Righteous Mind

The Happiness Hypothesis

Stranger to Ourselves

Redirect

Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to Amazon.com and find a treasure trove of books covering neuroscience, behavioral economics and social neuroscience.

I should also note that there are still many questions in psychology that neuroscience has not been able to address. Consciousness, perception, learning and memory are some examples. Neuroscience is a very good tool and has greatly advanced our understanding, but we should be mindful that we have a long way to go and still much to learn. As is the case with science, as we continue to advance our understanding we must continually revise our views to square with new facts.