The Price of Certainty

4

It’s alarming to see how polarized politics have become in the United States. The wider the gulf grows, the more people seem to be certain that the other side is wrong. Certainty can be a dangerous thing.

Two years ago, I met the social psychologist Arie Kruglanski while researching a documentary about extremism. Dr. Kruglanski, a professor at the University of Maryland, studies what motivates people to join terrorist groups like ISIS. My producing partner, Eric Strauss, and I had fascinating conversations with Dr. Kruglanski about the psychology of binary thinking, and decided to make a short film about his work instead.

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.

Dr. Kruglanski has spent his career studying the consequences of this psychology. This film is an effort to impart some of his wisdom as we navigate these uncertain times. - Daniele Anastasion

www.nytimes.com
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