My Doxology is better than yours (Part 2): Cultural differences are threatening because we hate ambiguity

          Back in the 1950s, Fritz Heider referred to all humans as naïve psychologists. Whether we are trained in psychology or not, we have a strong need to make sense of our world, a strong need to know and understand what is going on around us. If we understand the world around us, we have a far greater chance of controlling it. Even if we can’t control our world, understanding can help us to make informed choices about what to do next. To this end, we are constantly analyzing situations, trying to predict the behavior of others and pinpoint answers to questions such as who am I? and what is my purpose? We have a strong need to know and a strong need to avoid ambiguity. Arie Kruglanski has devoted his career to studying the lengths that humans will go in order to avoid ambiguity.  He studies a phenomenon called need for cognitive closure which is defined as an individual’s “need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity”[i]. The idea is that we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity, so if we can find a concept to help us make sense of the world, we will cling to it – even if the concept is incomplete. We want to quickly close the door to ambiguity because it threatens who we are. In our brazen attempts to make sense of the world, we are often motivated to settle for an answer even if it’s not the answer. Different cultural perspectives increase the number of possible “answers” and in doing so, invite ambiguity.  As a result, we are motivated to squelch them. Our need for cognitive closure can also help explain why we are resistant to Christian beliefs and practices that stem from different cultural groups.  For example, Scot McKnight uses the concept of atonement to illustrate how we are often divided by our different faith perspectives. In his book A Community Called Atonement, he presents various atonement metaphors – offering, justification, reconciliation, redemption and ransom – and shows that the plethora of metaphors typically leads to division because groups think that their particular metaphor provides the entire or most important truth about atonement and that other groups’ metaphors are wrong or relatively less important. He points out that it is quite ironic that the body of Christ is ardently divided over the definition of atonement – a concept that is relational and unifying by definition.  Research on need for cognitive closure helps to explain why our church group, when trying to make sense of a difficult and mysterious concept such as atonement, might cling to one metaphor of atonement and resist acceptance of other metaphors. To acknowledge that other useful metaphors might exist is to risk opening what we have already cognitively closed.

Kruglanski and colleagues have found that some individuals are naturally higher or lower in need for cognitive closure.  Individuals who have a high need for closure tend to express agreement to statements such as “I think that having clear rules and order at work is essential to success” and “I do not like situations that are uncertain” and tend to express disagreement to statements like “Even after I’ve made up my mind about something, I am always eager to consider a different opinion” and “I like to have friends who are unpredictable”[ii].  According to Kruglanski, “a strong need for closure is experienced as a desire to have closure urgently and maintain it permanently. Hence, individuals with a strong need for closure tend to “seize” on information permitting a judgment on a topic of interest and to “freeze” on such judgment, becoming relatively impermeable or closed-minded to further relevant information”[iii]. Individuals who possess a strong need for cognitive closure tend to favor tidy answers (even if they are incomplete answers) over true answers that are perhaps a bit abstract and untidy. It’s worth pointing out that someone who possesses a strong need for cognitive closure isn’t necessarily less intelligent than someone who is open to ambiguity. Rather, need for closure is related to a need to predict and control the world around us.  We have a high need for closure because it makes the world seem more safe, predictable and understandable.

Lest we decide that we’re not one of those people who are high in need for closure and that this research isn’t applicable to us, we should take note that Kruglanski has also found that certain situations can make people more likely to crave cognitive closure, regardless of their natural tendency.  For example, we’re more likely to succumb to closure when the perceived benefits of premature closure outweigh the perceived costs of remaining open. Naturally, group situations often trigger a high need for closure. In the interest of maintaining solid ingroup/outgroup boundaries, we may cling to our beliefs and remain closed to other points of view even when it simply does not make sense to do so. If the goal is to maintain psychological distance from the outgroup that we have vilified, we will cling to any ideological/cultural beliefs that differentiate us from the outgroup.

Next post on how to remain cognitively open.

[i] Kruglanski, 2004, p.6

[ii] Kruglanski, Webster & Klem, 1993

[iii] Kruglanski & Webster, 1996