The need to know

With my current job and longer commute, I have less time to spend looking for interesting articles on the web. But I have a supervisor who makes a habit of emailing us links to articles and websites related to education and the learning process. This one, from The New Yorker, is about the need to achieve “cognitive closure” – to replace uncertainty with answers.

It’s no surprise to learn that people naturally want firm answers to questions and dislike ambiguity. Or that people vary in their need for closure, and that for any given person it depends a great deal on their current circumstances.

Like anyone, I prefer answers to uncertainty where answers are available. But I also tend to be skeptical when the answers provided seem too full of certainty.

There are some questions to which the answers are clear, such as math and simple statements of fact. But the more important questions of life are usually the ones where uncertainty and ambiguity seem inevitable – probably because they involve people, and people are never as straightforward as math problems.

According to my mother, during one of our frequent conversations/arguments about religion during my teen years, I said that I believed in Jesus Christ because I wanted to have answers. I don’t remember the conversation, but the way she remembered it made it sound like I cared more about having answers than knowing that the answers were true.

(It seems strange to me now that I would have said that. Perhaps I felt a need to sound confident in order to have a “good witness” for Christ, something the fundamentalist church I attended was big on. I don’t remember ever not having doubts, but for years I kept them to myself.)

That is the danger that the article points out, that people are often too ready to commit themselves to an answer, just to have certainty. Once adopted, the answer is held tenaciously, and alternate explanations are rejected without much serious consideration.

On the other hand, “If we are afraid that what we say or think will come with a severe penalty, we suddenly become much more cautious in our judgments.” I tend to be cautious in adopting a view on most things. And I have to admit that one of the things that bothers me most is the thought of being found to have presumed  I am doing something right when I am wrong.

So I was curious to see how I would score on a test to measure the need for closure. (And I have to say that I dislike the ambiguity involved with choices like “slightly disagree” or “moderately agree.”)

Apparently I am somewhat below average in my overall need for closure. I am average in my need for order and predictability and my tolerance of ambiguity, low average in my closemindedness and below average in my decisiveness.

Of course, I am average only by averaging various aspects of life. I like a predictable routine for the most part but would hate to have it all routine. I repeat pretty much the same meal plans Monday through Friday, but when I go to a restaurant I make a point of ordering the daily special (if it’s not too expensive), both because it’s something different and because it removes the need to decide what to get.

I believe that absolute truth exists. I am simply skeptical about knowing it – or at any rate, knowing that I know it.


3 Responses to The need to know

  1. modestypress says:

    I am about 10,000 times more skeptical about knowing absolute truth. I am fairly close to absolutely sure, however, that You Know Who does not exist and that when I die I will cease to exist.

    • Pauline says:

      I am puzzled by your near absolute certainty in that regard.

      When adherents of different religions hold mutually exclusive beliefs with similar degrees of certainty, for many of them, at least, the certainty must be derived from something other than unambiguous evidence. The unbeliever can hardly be blamed for attributing their certainty to the need for cognitive closure.
      And it’s understandable that the atheist would argue that if most of them believe due to need for closure rather than clear evidence, then probably the it’s true of all of them.

      But lack of unambiguous evidence is not the same as lack of evidence. To me there is plenty of evidence of a spiritual dimension to life, and of mysteries far beyond our grasp. To claim near certainty that God does not exist, and that life ends with physical death, seems to me most likely based on the need for cognitive closure just as much as any religious belief.

      • Margaret says:

        I’m similar to Pauline. But I am intrigued by modestypress and his long-term interest in Pauline’s blog while disagreeing so strongly with her statements. I wonder if he has had very painful experiences regarding the idea of “You Know Who” while somehow wishing that this were not the case, and that permanent existence were indeed possible.

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