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.

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! )

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


Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to 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.


In RSA animates’s latest video Roman Krznaric presents The Power of Outrospection.

The 21st century needs to be different. Instead of the age of intropsection we need to shift to the age of outrospection. And by outrospection I mean the idea of discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilizations. And the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection is empathy.”

Talking to the elephant

If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”― J. Haidt

If you haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s work, I highly recommend you do. Haidt is a social psychologist who specializes in moral psychology. His latest book, The Righteous Mind, is a fascinating book on why it’s so difficult for people to talk about religion and politics. You’ve probably heard the saying: “You can talk about anything with people but religion and politics.” Why is that? The short answer is that religious and political beliefs have strong, non-rational, emotional elements that make critical discussions very difficult if not, depending on the person, impossible. We may want to have that honest, open philosophical discussion about politics or religion (or maybe even football!) but we tend to find that most people can’t without getting too angry or personal. Well, Dr. Haidt provides a way of seeing, and hence understanding, this problem.

Haidt invents a very useful metaphor for understanding how the rational and intuitive (emotional, non-rational) parts of our mind interact when our moral passions are engaged by questions of politics or religion. Haidt asks us to see our mind as divided into two parts: an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional or intuitive part of our mind. The rider is the rational part of our mind. The elephant is much bigger and stronger and is ultimately in charge. The rider, who represents the slower, more reasoning part of the human psyche, can try to influence, goad, or reason with the elephant but the rider can’t make the elephant ultimately do what it doesn’t want to. More often than not the rider merely plays the part of a lawyer defending his client’s (the elephant) actions or decisions post-mortem. So when it comes to religion and politics our inner elephant is already leaning (or stampeding) in the preferred direction from the start. The rider does what he can, but for the most part he’s along for the ride.

So our moral judgments are mostly the product of emotional preference. Rational considerations play a very small part in moral judgments. Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology is: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” If we want to change people’s minds we have to begin by understanding that few people can be “reasoned” out of their moral beliefs. Reasoning is attempting to convince the rider. To change minds you have to talk to the elephant. And that’s not easy. People, as the old saying goes, believe what they want to in spite of mountains of evidence to the absolute contrary. There is an emotional attachment (and pay off) to moral beliefs and the sense of belonging people get from standing with like minded people (“your team”). There actually are some social benefits to this mindset. But this “tribal” mindset has also led to some of the worst atrocities in history.

So if the emotions play such a powerful role in the quality of our society and individual lives, what might we do to improve our moral emotional intelligence – if that’s possible at all. Basically, how do we train the elephant? Let me suggest one way. What this means, in my mind, is that an education in the Arts & Humanities is far more important than we ever thought. The Arts and Humanities, more than any other study, helps educate the emotions – the fuel of our moral sentiments. Besides teaching you how to think, more importantly, the Arts and Humanities teach us how to feel. The philosopher Roger Scruton makes a compelling argument along these lines in his book Culture Counts. Scruton is, of course, referring to the larger, more encompassing idea of (Western) Culture. But much of what he means by culture falls within the Arts & Humanities.

At first I actually came away from reading Haidt’s work with the impression that we’re all doomed. I mean if emotionality settles everything then what hope can we have in reason and progress. In fact, Haidt even says at one point that faith in reason is an illusion. But of course this is coming from a social scientist who’s just presented a well crafted scientifically “reasoned” argument. Should our faith in his conclusions also be considered illusory?

Let me conclude this ramble with some parting thoughts. Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor are an excellent way to understand how individuals reach moral decisions. We are emotionally driven creatures who feel first and reason second. As Shakespeare’s Gloucester says in King Lear, “I see it feelingly.” I think this idea is a sound observation that most of us understand intuitively. Emotions are king. But Haidt doesn’t attempt to say how we channel these emotional forces like, say, the ancient Greeks did in through their art, philosophy and history. Haidt provides an excellent image for understanding our dilemma, but he really doesn’t offer any ideas for how we might mitigate the problem. Or at least none that satisfies me. My thoughts are that we can, in the modern world, channel or inform our emotions through education, specifically in the Arts & Humanities. I’m not saying an education in the Arts and Humanities will be a sure bet for taming the inner elephant, but certainly it may help calm it. And it might even help soothe the elephant into listening to the rider.

Ideas rule the world

There’s a well worn idea that men of thought (intellectuals, artists and other similar types) are impractical idealists whose elevated thinking and theorizing has little to do with everyday practical affairs. We’ve all heard this argument in one form or another. But it’s obviously false: ideas shape who we are, how we think and how we act. Behavior is a direct result of how one “perceives.” And ideas are the instrument that grinds the lens of perception. The economist and philosopher John Maynard Keynes spoke to the power of ideas in one of his most famous quotes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. – John Maynard Keynes

The  great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald also has some notable words about the power and influence of ideas. After publishing his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald received some “hate mail.” The letter chided Fitzgerald for how his book treated affluent people in business and politics and the high society that surrounds them. Here is a copy of Fitzgerald’s apt reply:

Your letter riled me to such an extent that I’m answering immediately. Who are all these ‘real people’ who ‘create business and politics’? and of whose approval I should be so covetous? Do you mean grafters who keep sugar in their ware houses so that people have to go without or the cheap-jacks who by bribery and high-school sentiment manage to control elections. I can’t pick up a paper here without finding that some of these ‘real people’ who will not be satisfied only with ‘a brilliant mind’ (I quote you) have just gone up to Sing Sing for a stay — Brindell and Hegerman, two pillars of society, went this morning.

Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jail. The rest were drunkards or wasters and told generally by the merchants and petty politicians and jitney messiahs of their day that real people wouldn’t stand it And the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.

Just occasionally a man like Shaw who was called an immoralist 50 times worse than me back in the 90ties, lives on long enough so that the world grows up to him. What he believed in 1890 was heresy then — by by now its almost respectable. It seems to me I’ve let myself be dominated by ‘authorities’ for too long — the headmaster of Newman, S.P. A, Princeton, my regiment, my business boss — who knew no more than me, in fact I should say these 5 were all distinctly my mental inferiors. And that’s all that counts! The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot), and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they’ve set up in their hearts. [Bolding is mine.]

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