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.

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.