As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We’re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can’t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers.
How we make sense of the world
It’s about what happens when we’re confused and the path forward isn’t obvious. Of course, most of the challenges of daily life are perfectly straightforward. When it’s snowing, we know to put on a jacket before venturing out. When the phone rings, we pick it up. A red stoplight means we should brake. At the other end of the spectrum, vast stores of knowledge completely confound most of us. Stare at Babylonian cuneiform or listen to particle physicists debate, and if you’re like me, your mind will draw a blank. We can’t be confused without some foothold in knowledge. Instead of feeling uneasy because we half understand, we’re as calmly certain in our ignorance as we are assured in our everyday rituals.
When the information we need to make sense of an experience seems to be missing, too complex, or contradictory Is in these partially meaningful situations that ambiguity resides. The mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable. The delight of crossword puzzles, for example, comes from pondering and resolving ambiguous clues. Detective stories, among the most successful literary genres of all time, concoct their suspense by sustaining uncertainty about hints and culprits. Mind-bending modern art, the multiplicities of poetry, Lewis Carroll’s riddles, Márquez’s magical realism, Kafka’s existential satire—ambiguity saturates our art forms and masterpieces, suggesting its deeply emotional nature. Goethe once said that “ what we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive.” So it is with ambiguity.
Need for closure
Scientific interest in ambiguity has exploded over the last decade. Much of that attention has focused on exploring a concept called the need for closure.
Developed by a brilliant psychologist name Arie Kruglanski, a person’s need for closure measures a particular “desire for a definite answer on some topic, any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity.”
Kruglanski would offer a more modest and somehow more disturbing propposal than Frenkel-Brunswik’s. He understood that humans have a need to resolve uncertainty and make sense of nonsense. It wouldn’t be very adaptive, he reasoned, if we had no mechanism pushing us to settle discrepancies and make decisions. Without some type of urge for resolution, we’d never get anything done. That’s the need for closure.
But Kruglanski also suspected that our aversion to uncertainty isn’t static. What if, he wondered, extremism results when our thirst for clear answers goes into hyperdrive?
That, in fact, is what Kruglanski and other researchers discovered. Our need to conquer the unresolved, as we’ll see, is essential to our ability to function in the world. But like any mental trait, this need can be exaggerated in some people and heightened in certain circumstances.
As Kruglanski told me, ‘the situation you’re in, your culture, your social environment-change any of these factors, and you’re going to change someone’s need to for closure.’
When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions. We may stubbornly insist, like Rudolf Schelkmann, that the dog is still a dog and not a cat.