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, and how do I get to where I am going? But confusion is greatly underrated, argues the journalist Jamie Holmes in his new book, “Nonsense.” Naturally, it is good to understand. Yet, Holmes writes, our discomfort with not knowing can lead us astray — to bad solutions, or to brilliant options never spotted. If we could learn to embrace uncertainty, we’d all be better off — and better prepared for modern life. Holmes answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Cook: How did you become interested in this unusual topic?
Holmes: 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, Massachusetts, where I finished high school. My father threw me into a German school in Berlin, with two weeks of language lessons, when I was eleven. I went to high school in Budapest for a bit when I was 15. I taught high school classes in Romania after college. So I think one puzzle that I’ve always found really intriguing is how someone’s worldview changes when it’s challenged by radically unusual experiences, and how difficult and rewarding those time periods can be. The psychologist Dean Simonton calls them “diversifying experiences.” So, in a sense, one major theme of the book—what happens when beliefs collide with unexpected or unclear situations—is very personal to me.

More directly, I was looking into the psychologist Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower, which got me interested, more broadly, in how the mind handles mental conflicts. That led to me to the work of psychologist Arie Kruglanksi, and in particular a book called “The Psychology of Closed Mindedness.” And I realized very quickly that here was this rich vein of research on ambiguity and uncertainty from a highly-respected researcher, published in top journals, that had received almost no popular attention simply because Kruglanski hadn’t gotten around to writing a popular book about it. He joked to me that now he wouldn’t have to.

Cook: You write about our “need for closure.” Where does this come from, and why is it something that we should know about ourselves?
Holmes: Our need for closure is our natural preference for definite answers over confusion and ambiguity. The need-for-closure scale was developed by Kruglanski in the early 1990s, although forerunners of the concept appeared after World War II as psychologists struggled to understand Nazism. Every person has their own baseline level of need for closure. (Curious readers can test theirs, by the way, at my website.) It likely evolved via natural selection. If we didn’t have some capacity to shut down thinking, we’d deliberate forever. There must be some mechanism pushing us toward resolution, Kruglanski saw. We have to eliminate ambiguity.  

What I find really fascinating is how our need for closure is affected by the situation we’re in. So, our need for closure rises when we have to act rather than just observe, and when we’re rushed, or bored, or tired. Any stress, really, can make our discomfort with ambiguity increase. And that matters, because a high need for closure negatively influences some of our most critical decisions: how we deal with perceived threats, who we decide to trust, whether we admit we’re wrong, whether we stereotype, and even how creative we are. So much of the book focuses on the dangers of a high need for closure, strategies for lowering it, and ways to learn from ambiguity rather than dismiss it.

Cook: Can you give a more specific example? What kind of strategies do you recommend?
Holmes: 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. In making any big decision, to counteract that, it’s not enough just to know that we should take our time. 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—of a job candidate, say—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 have serious consequences. So one strategy is to formalize these kinds of reminders. Before making important decisions, write down not just the pros and cons but what the consequences could be. Also, think about how much pressure you’re under. Are you tired or feeling rushed? If your need for closure is particularly high that day, it’s even more important to be deliberate.

Both fiction and multicultural experiences, maybe surprisingly, also help. Reading short stories, as opposed to essays, have been shown to reduce our need for closure, particularly for habitual readers. Because fiction, in a non-threatening way, invites us inside the heads of characters, the logic is, it makes us more open to thinking about other ideas, other places and other lives, and new 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. The same paper showed that similar interventions led to less discriminatory (simulated) hiring and a lower tendency to stereotype. Reading fiction, by the way, 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.

Cook: Why is there so much interest in ambiguity now?
Holmes: One area where there is more and more interest in ambiguity is among entrepreneurs and businesspeople, simply because the future in many business sectors is highly ambiguous. Earlier this year, Thomas Friedman had an op-ed about disorder in the business world where he highlighted just how disruptive the business models of Uber, Facebook, Alibaba, and Airbnb are. Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world, he pointed out, yet has no cars. Facebook doesn’t create media, Alibaba has no inventory, and Airbnb doesn’t own the real estate it uses. So the communication 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, and as the economist Noreena Hertz put it, one of today’s fundamental challenges is coping with disorder.