Moments of confusion can be pretty memorable—and not in a good way. How is this thing supposed to work? What is the teacher's point? Where am I? But confusion is greatly underrated, Jamie Holmes argues in his new book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (Crown, 2015; 336 pages). Our discomfort with not knowing, he writes, can lead us to bad solutions or to brilliant options we would have otherwise never spotted. If we could learn to embrace uncertainty, we would all be better prepared for modern life. Holmes answered questions from contributing editor Gareth Cook. The full interview appears online in Mind Matters (www.ScientificAmerican.com/mind-matters). An edited transcript follows.
How did you become interested in this unusual topic?
My childhood was full of jarring experiences—jarring in a good way—that felt at once bizarre, confusing, challenging and enlightening. The social world of the south side of Chicago, where I started high school, was much more diverse than the one in Cambridge, Mass., where I finished high school. My father threw me into a German school in Berlin, with two weeks of language lessons, when I was 11 years old. I went to high school in Budapest when I was 15. I taught high school classes in Romania after college. So I've always found it really intriguing how someone's worldview changes when it's challenged by radically unusual experiences and how difficult and rewarding those time periods can be. Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton calls them “diversifying experiences.” One major theme of the book—what happens when beliefs collide with unexpected or unclear situations—is very personal to me.
You write about our “need for closure.” Where does this come from?
Our need for closure is our natural preference for definite answers over confusion and ambiguity. Psychologist Arie Kruglanski co-developed the need-for-closure scale in the early 1990s, although forerunners of the concept appeared after World War II, as psychologists struggled to understand Nazism. Every person has his or her own baseline level of need for closure. It most likely evolved via natural selection. If we didn't have some capacity to shut down thinking, we'd deliberate forever. Much of the book focuses on the dangers of a high need for closure, strategies for lowering it and ways to learn from ambiguity.
Can you give a specific example?
In hiring, for instance, a high need for closure leads people to put far too much weight on their first impression. It's called the urgency effect. We all know that important decisions shouldn't be rushed. The problem is that we don't keep that advice in mind when it matters. In experiments, psychologists lower people's need for closure by telling them, right before participants are about to make various judgments, that they'll have to defend their decisions later on, or that they'll be accountable in some way for them, or that their judgments will have serious consequences. One strategy is to formalize these reminders. Before making important decisions, write down the pros and cons and what the consequences could be.
Both fiction and multicultural experiences, maybe surprisingly, also help. Reading short stories, as opposed to essays, has been shown to reduce our need for closure. Because fiction, in a nonthreatening way, invites us inside the heads of characters, it makes us more open to thinking about other ideas and possibilities. One fantastic experiment published in 2012 showed, similarly, that merely having subjects write about a time they'd lived abroad, or friends they'd met from different cultures, or diverse musical or culinary experiences also lowered their need for closure. Reading fiction also makes us more empathetic. So, as a bonus, the things that lower our need for closure not only help us make better decisions in daily life—they also make us nicer.
Why is there so much interest in ambiguity now?
One area where there is growing interest in ambiguity is among entrepreneurs, simply because the future in many business sectors is highly ambiguous. Last year Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about disorder in the business world. Uber is one of the biggest taxi companies in the world, he pointed out, yet it has no cars. Facebook doesn't create media, Alibaba has no inventory, and Airbnb doesn't own any of the real estate it uses. So the communications platforms we're using are revolutionizing a range of industries. It's not in the book, but businesspeople have an acronym, VUCA, or volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It's a VUCA world.
Editor's Note: This article was adapted from a Mind Matters article.