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

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.

Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind-cover-new-pipeI recently finished reading Maria Konnikova’s new book. It’s called Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Konnikova is mostly known for her blog “Literally Psyched” at The Scientific American. Her blog is, for the most part, an exploration and discussion of topics in literature and psychology. So it’s not surprising that her first book is an exploration in psychology and scientific thinking as demonstrated through the mind of Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Konnikova uses the literary character of Sherlock Holmes and his successful thinking methods (for solving crimes) as a model for a particular way of thinking. This method is the scientific method of mind. The central purpose of Master-Mind is to demonstrate how to develop a scientific method of mind and thereby improve your thinking.

There are five basic principles to Konnikova’s scientific method of mind:

1. Self awareness and context matter. The first thing we must realize from the start, before we even begin to evaluate, judge, or reason is that each of us have built in cognitive biases, predispositions, and prejudices that push our perspectives, our thinking and decisions, in ways that we’re not even conscious of. Being consciously aware and attempting to mitigate these stereotyping influences is critical to the scientific state of mind and effective thinking. Related to this is the principle of “mindfulness.” This is another theme running throughout the book. The idea is that we need to be passive (not letting our minds “actively” wander) observers (not just looking but “seeing”) of the phenomenon.

The second part of this principle is “context matters.” This means being mindful of the external (and internal) environment–the whole situation–before you start making judgements. How you initially frame the situation can have a significant impact on whether you succeed or fail. This is important because our intuitions tend to race ahead of our deliberative thinking if we’re not mindful of the need to slow down the process and observe. You need to know if the environment has something to tell you about the situation. Understanding the environment also means understanding your own state of mind. “Remember: specific, mindful motivation matters.” Are you engaged? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? You need to clarify these important points before you start your journey of thought.

2. Be a careful and thoughtful observer. Once you’re aware of your limitations and considered the context you must then truly observe the phenomenon. You must be attentive to details. One needs to be open minded and allow objects, events, and evidence to speak for themselves, without you filtering it through any prior assumptions, preconceptions or expectations.

3. Make room for creative space. Once you have observed and gathered information then it’s time to mull it over, taking the time to ask yourself questions and consider various possibilities and probabilities. In a sense, you’re forming a hypothesis.

4. Deduce. After mulling it over you begin the process of weighing your theories against the known facts and then choosing the best answer. “Objective fact, to a consideration of multiple possibilities, to a narrowing of the most likely ones. No extraneous details, no holes filled in by an all too willing imagination. Scientific deduction at it’s best.”

5. And principle 5 is straight forward: “Learn–from your failures just as you do from your successes.”

These 5 basic principles make up the scientific method of mind. Master-Mind is loaded with a lot of insights gleaned from research in neuroscience and psychology. This brief post doesn’t do her book justice. If you’re interested in improving your thinking and becoming more reasonable and approaching situations more objectively (and scientifically) then I highly recommend her book.

Excellent speech by David Brooks at the Chicago Humanities Festival

I’m a dedicated reader of David Brooks’s work. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s a columnist for The New York Times. He mostly covers politics, but he also writes about culture and the social sciences. I was originally drawn to Brooks’s writing because his political analysis was, for the most part, reasonable and fair. I may not always agree with his arguments, but I find many of his observations fascinating and funny. Along with being a real wit (as you will see in the video), he’s a superb writer.

His social science writing is some of the best stuff out there. In 2011 Brooks published the The Social Animal. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller. The book is about the latest discoveries in social science research. Basically it’s a book that explains how individuals actually flourish as human beings. It’s a book that basically explains to us (through a story) how much our intuitions, emotions and the unconscious parts of our mind, are actually the deciding factors in how our lives actually turn out. It’s one of those non-fiction books I can read over and over. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Social Animal.

In the talk above Brooks discusses politics through the lens of his social science research and his many years as a political journalist. I think It’s a really good, insightful speech. I hope you’ll watch.

Outrospection

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.”

Kahneman and the biases of intuition

Over the past few years I’ve read a number of books and research studies related to social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. One of the most interesting books during this time was Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The “book is about biases of intuition.” Kahneman, along with a growing number of scientific studies, demonstrates just how error prone our intuitive judgments can be.

As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.     

As our guide and objective observer, Kahneman takes us on a tour of the predictable biases (or systematic errors) in human cognition that all of us have. The book is a fascinating read. I highly recommend it. Of course, most of us are aware that people have biases, but Kahneman shows us just how pervasive they are. You’ll be surprised how many times in the book Kahneman sets you up and demonstrates your own biases. Probably the most obvious bias on display during this political season is confirmation bias. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans immediately read information as confirming what they already believe.

Personally, the biggest benefit I took from Kahnman’s book is simple awareness. I can’t say because I’m aware of how pervasive these cognitive biases are that I’m able to avoid them. I’m human, all too human. But being consciously aware and, I believe, honestly trying to avoid them is the best anyone can do.