Why Certainty Is Killing Us

There’s a great article/short video at the New York Times‘s site that I urge everyone to check out. Here’s the video by itself:

From the article:

Dr. Kruglanski is best known for his theory of “cognitive closure,” a term he coined in 1989 to describe how we make decisions. “Closure” is the moment that you make a decision or form a judgment. You literally close your mind to new information.

If you have high “need for closure,” you tend to make decisions quickly and see the world in black and white. If you have a low need for closure, you tolerate ambiguity, but often have difficulty making decisions. All of us fall naturally somewhere on this spectrum.

But during times of fear and anxiety — like, for example, right now — everybody’s need for closure increases. We tend to make judgments more quickly, regardless of the facts. We’re also drawn to leaders who are decisive and paint solutions in simple terms. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Kruglanski and his team of researchers found that as the color-coded terrorism threat system increased, support for President George W. Bush went up accordingly. The more uncertain our world seems, the more we compensate by seeking out certainty.

In my talk in Brooklyn a few days ago, I argued that moral absolutism, which appears to offer clear, simple answers to moral questions, doesn’t really work. And then I touched on the problem of ambiguity in making moral decisions.

I realize people often are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They want clear rules and sharply defined boundaries. They want all phenomena to be properly sorted into their socially acceptable conceptual boxes. That’s why some people prize moral absolutism. That’s a mostly workable strategy for getting through life, but it’s not real. It’s an artificial order superimposed on the messiness of reality. And sometimes failing to accept reality causes more trouble than it solves.

One of the great humanistic philosophers of the 20th century, Erich Fromm, wrote that people often escape into authoritarian mass movements because they fear freedom. A lot of that fear of freedom is a fear of ambiguity, a lack of clear, bright lines that make your choices for you.

I think we see a lot of that fear in America today. And notice that some of the same people who talk about how they want to protect their freedom seem hell bent on destroying everybody’s freedom to do that. It’s like they’re protecting their freedom to be not free. But those clear, bright lines are not likely to come back, so this is a situation we’re going to have to deal with for a while.

It seems to me that vast numbers of people across the political spectrum have seized upon simplistic, black-white visions of the world instead of dealing with the messiness and ambiguity of reality. Political leaders, for example, are seen as absolutely good or absolutely evil. Your hero’s opponent is hell bent on getting us into war and bringing on a New World Order under corporate control, and probably eats puppies for breakfast, while your favored political leader is pure and holy and above criticism, and electing him/her will take away all the frightening things and make the world behave as you wish it would. Fill in the names of any politicians into that last sentence; you can find plenty of people who think that way.

In this fevered environment the most absurd conspiracy theories are accepted as holy truth, and those who don’t accept them as gospel are derided as “sheeple” and dupes of the system. It doesn’t help that people are making money with clickbait sites running fake news stories that appear to confirm the worst of the nonsense.

But certainty is very comforting psychologically. In the words of the great Eric Hoffer,

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. … The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [The True Believer, p. 82]

Getting back to Erich Fromm — one of his seminal works is the book Escape From Freedom (1941), in which he argued that many people simply cannot function within the ambiguities of a truly free society. Such people tend to “escape” in three ways. One, they seek to become part of an authoritarian system, handing their moral and political agency over to an authoritarian leader; two, they become destructive and just want to destroy everything they don’t like; three, they become hyper-conformist, adapting to the opinions and moral values of whatever group he associates with.

We’re seeing all of that now. The terrible irony is that many of the people trying to escape freedom are screaming that they are fighting for their freedom.  But it’s not freedom they seek, but its opposite.

American politicians have been stoking the fires of fear as far back as I can remember.  It used to be fear of Communism. Then it was fear of racial desegregation. Then it was anti-war hippies, women’s libbers, liberals and gay people. It’s always something. But now a large part of the American electorate are fear junkies. They’re like horror movie fans; they want to be frightened, and they want a big, strong hero to come along and save them from the monsters. And as many keep pointing out, this is exactly how totalitarian regimes take hold.

I like the way the video closes:

How do we know the difference between extremism and fighting for a just cause? There’s no easy answer to the question. That’s what makes certainty so dangerous. When you dismiss other points of view, when you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment. That’s why we should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness. The alternative is the abyss.

We should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness. Amen. Righteousness is intoxicating; it makes us feel powerful, especially against that thing we’re afraid of. But it does nothing to help us think clearly or make sensible judgments. It makes us blind to the abyss.

14 thoughts on “Why Certainty Is Killing Us

  1. I went to my prayer closet and sought the face of God.. Oh Lord, I prayed, that I may be granted the wisdom to know and understand the path which our nation should follow in choosing the correct candidate in this upcoming election.
    After several hours of laying prostrate before the Lord in tearful petition a voice from the heavens graced my ears with the wisdom I so humbly sought.. like the roar of mighty thunder the voice spoke to me saying…Donald J. Trump is a big bag of shit…Go with Hillary.

  2. Swami for the win! I keep having to tell my self “not my circus, not my monkeys”when I see some FB posts. Clearly, people have reached closure and facts be damned. I remember telling people that we Dems survived Bush, and they would survive Obama. I think they see Trump as their revenge for Obama.

  3. Too many people define their freedom, as the abilitty to discminate against others seeking freedom.
    Freedom is not a zero-sum game.
    Allowing others their freedom doesn’t take away from yours, it adds to the freedoms we all can share.

    I’m not a religious man. I may or may not believe in a God. But whether I do or don’t believe in Him/Her/It, I sure don’t believe in otganized religion.
    I try to live my life according the best tenets in ALL religions. There, THERE, lies our shared humanity. And there lies the greater good for all.


    Their first one in 108 years.
    I guess any team can have a bad century.
    Plus 8 years.
    The Cubs haven’t even been IN a World Series since 1945!
    Think of how happy their fans are right now!
    Do they even know how to act?
    If the dead can rise, deceased Cubs fans will be marching in the streets tonight (and if they do rise, I hope they stay around and vote for Hillary on Election Day. THAT’LL PISS-OFF that whining ninny, t-RUMP!).

    In between Cubs WS wins, the NY Yankees have won 28.

  5. “Then it was fear of racial segregation.”

    Did you mean “racial integration”? Fear of racial segregation has seldom bothered Americans much.

  6. An African-American man sworn in as POTUS in 2009!

    The Cubs win a World Series in 2016!!!

    What’s next?
    An Cheetos-colored, demagogic, Fascistic, billioinaire male pussy-grabber as POTU…

    No, a WOMAN, a FEMALE, a CHICK, a person with a vagina as POTUS!
    That’s more like it!!
    MUCH BETTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Make that ‘self-proclaimed’ billionaire, since that asshole won’t show his taxes because, well…
    -Maybe he ain’t no billionaire?
    -Maybe because he hasn’t paid any in almost 20 years?
    -Or, maybe he’s a willing stooge and money-whore for Putin and his gang of kleptocrats?
    Or, all of the above!

  8. Back in the corporate world I worked with people whose MO was to covertly create chaos in the office, then sit in the middle of it all as the only ‘sane and strong’ person left. Those two would be feuding, that one had issues, this one was a nervous wreck, etc… ‘Weirdness’ was everywhere. The few remaining objective observers had an idea of what was going on but felt powerless to do much, outnumbered and outgunned and they just laid low. The rest of it makes sense now. The part where the troublemaker always seemed to gain a loyal following from those not being targeted. I always wondered who (why) these enablers were.

    In normally functioning offices the troublemakers weren’t around, or maybe rendered powerless by competent management, I dunno.

    I don’t worry so much about obvious clowns like Trump, the ones quickly figured out and lampooned. I worry about the really clever dangerous populist that may come next.

    This certainty/righteousness principle helps explain why obvious red flags told about Trump bounces off his minions heads like beach balls. They cannot want to believe it, they need that certainty so much.

  9. Worse than mere certainty is the craziness of the political propaganda machines.

    I wish I’d kept track of it, but during the Clinton administration, there were Republicans horrified that President Bill Clinton could spy on *anyone* with nothing but a rubber-stamp from the FISA court.

    I know some of those same Republicans were horrified that people were suggesting George W. Bush did something wrong when he spied on folks *without* those warrants.

    Certainty would be far better than this.

    I mean, I’m not arguing against what you say – you’re right. The old bit about how, during the inquisition, the moderates proclaimed that one surely ought not burn *too many* heretics. Only the crazy radicals said “you can’t burn people for their beliefs!” It’s likely that there’s a similar issue today where we blithely do X and people will think “but how could a HUMAN BEING do that?”

    But at least a dead certain radical or reactionary is predictable. You know where you stand. You don’t have to worry about the standards changing year to year. You can lay out your battlefield and decide your next move.

  10. As said above, right-wingers are fear junkies. It was communism, then integration and women’s lib. The fall of the Soviet Union left them temporarily bereft until Saddam Hussein became a temporary bogeyman, then the Clintons seemed to fill the role of Obsessive Hate Object in the 90s until 9/11 provided new targets.

    All stoked by a corporate media that leaves Americans probably the least-informed in the western world about events outside their own country, ripe for exploitation. In a recent poll some ridiculous number like 70% of Americans thought ISIS was an actual threat to the survival of the US.

    These people just can’t feel alive without being scared shitless, and there are plenty of cynical politicians primed to exploit this.

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