Yes or no, black or white and like or dislike. Yes, we inhabit a polarised world, a one that likes to compartmentalise opinions and people into neat, airtight boxes. You are either pro-this or anti-that. You either support a cause or are against it. Like high school debates, people have to choose between being for or against a proposition. While binary thinking can be useful in certain contexts, most real-world problems are too complex and nuanced to lend themselves to either-or answers. Even though a binary thinking results in definitive answers, we need to learn to embrace and live with uncertainty instead of quelling our anxieties by settling for false dichotomies.
Embrace the grey
In an article, Maria Konnikova discusses the psychological phenomenon of “cognitive closure.” According to social psychologist, Arie Kruglanski, a person’s need for cognitive closure refers to an “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion towards ambiguity.” In other words, a person seeks certainty and wishes to dispel any sense of doubt. While people may differ in terms of how much uncertainty they can tolerate, our need for cognitive closure increases under stress. In fact, the more unstable and unpredictable our environment, the more we tend to seek definitive answers.
Kruglanski and his colleagues were able to find evidence for their hypothesis that our need for cognitive closure becomes greater under duress. A couple of weeks after the series of bombings that rocked London’s underground train stations in 2005, the researchers gave over a hundred people a questionnaire. And, predictably, they found that people had heightened levels of a need for closure. When we feel threatened, our need for closure compels us to ‘seize’ any information without necessarily bothering to ascertain its veracity. In contrast, when we are calmer and more relaxed, we may question the validity of the information presented to us and analyse it more rationally. But in tumultuous times, not only do we hold on to information, whether or not it is true, we also ‘freeze’ our knowledge so that we don’t have to contend with niggling doubts and nagging apprehensions.
And, this type of thinking sets the stage for biases and prejudices to fester. Further, in today’s hyper-connected and chatty world, people may publicise their opinions prematurely without having thought through them. This then exacerbates our tendency to ‘freeze’ on to a particular position without considering alternative points of view. Once we have made our views public, we usually want to stick to our positions as we don’t want to appear fickle, or worse, unsure.
In addition to helping us publicise our opinions, the internet also engenders another problem. As we are used to getting instantaneous answers, whether accurate or not, we apply the same quick-fix and easy-to-pinpoint mentality when we read more complex tracts of text. So, even before we finish plodding through a dense piece of prose, we are ready to categorise either the article or the author based on simplistic boundaries. We do not wish to contend with doubt, moral dilemmas or problems that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. The internet, by fostering cognitive impatience, often predisposes us to jump to faulty conclusions.
In order to mitigate the deleterious effects of our need for closure, we need to be more self-aware and cautious, especially in trying circumstances. In situations that test our limits, we need to maintain a sense of calm first. The more we panic, the more we are likely to fall prey to our need for closure.
Next, we also have to learn to press our pause button more often before posting, tweeting or sharing opinions on social media. When we hear some sensational news, we need to curb our instinct to share it immediately. Instead of blindly forwarding messages and posts, we should check whether we can ascertain the authenticity of the information. If not, we need to ask ourselves whether we are being responsible in forwarding it, supposing it turns out to be false. Of course, if we are in doubt about what to do, we can forward the post with a caveat saying we aren’t sure if it is true and coax others to verify the information with other sources.
Third, we need to desist from reducing people, issues and quandaries into clear-cut categories. If we want to live in a pluralistic society that not only accepts but celebrates difference, we need to learn to live with some amount of ambiguity. The moment we insist on certainty and simplicity at all costs, the gates of our minds automatically shut. And, closed minds are a veritable breeding ground for bias and bigotry to grow deep roots.
Finally, when reading longer and more abstruse articles online, remind yourself that skimming and scanning will not be the right approach for such pieces. If you really want to understand a difficult piece of text, then you should give it the attention it deserves. Read each paragraph slowly, patiently and actively. The more questions an article raises, the more engaged you are as a reader. If an article provokes questions instead of only answering ones you may have, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t serve a purpose.
As a student, cultivating a questioning mindset can go a long way in helping you gain a balanced perspective. But even as you question other sources, including your textbooks, remember that you also need to repeatedly question yourself to ensure that you are always open to considering other points of view. And, remember, that it’s perfectly okay to be unsure. In fact, facing the uncertainties of life with grace and composure is the hallmark of a mature mind.
(The author is director, PRAYATNA)