Arie Kruglanski – The Science of Closed-Mindedness

August 20, 2012

Our guest this week is Arie Kruglanski. He’s a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland College Park, and has been a pioneer in the study of closed-mindedness-or, the “need for closure”—including how it drives fundamentalist belief systems and violent extremism.

Dr. Kruglanski has served on National Academy of Sciences panels related to counterterrorism, and is a founding co-principal investigator at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland.

In addition, Kruglanski is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and has edited a variety of prominent journals, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Donald Campbell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology. For more about his research, you can visit his website.

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, August 20th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. Our guest this week is Ari Krueger Lansky. He’s a distinguished university professor of psychology at the University of Maryland College Park. And I think his research is gonna be fascinating to you, our listeners. Dr. Craig Lansky focuses on the psychology of closed mindedness, including how it drives fundamentalist belief systems and violent extremism. He has served on National Academy of Sciences panels related to counter-terrorism and is a founding co principal investigator at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism, or start at the University of Maryland. In addition, Crew Glancy is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and has edited a variety of prominent journals, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Attitudes and Social Cognition. He’s the recipient of numerous awards, including the Donald Campbell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology. 

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Ari Kurlansky, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you very much. It’s good to be here. 

It’s wonderful to have you. You are a scientist who’s built your career studying why people are close minded. And this is something you call the need for cognitive closure. And having learned a lot about your work, made me realize that it’s highly relevant to the kind of issues we discuss in this podcast, including people’s views about politics, but also why people up for fundamentalist religion, even why some small minority of people opt for extra violent extremism and terrorism. So I want to talk about all that. But first, I think we have to start simple. So I want to ask you what how would you define this concept? This thing, this need for cognitive closure? What is it? 

It’s say it’s a motivation to have certainty, to avoid them biggity, to have clarity in a man’s mind concerning various topics. And it’s a very essential thing to have because without certainty, without clarity, action would not be possible. Action has to be based on. On some Sunday, a clear judgment as to how things are. So it’s an indispensible mechanism for life or for action for for getting things done. 

So does that mean that everybody has the same need for closure? How do you determine that? 

You. People vary in how a caller on there of ambiguity and how to what extent they crave to have closure and certainty in various domains of their life. And everybody has any foreclosure in some situations. And some situations induce a stronger need for closure than other situations. But everybody in so far as everybody decides to act to cross the street to to buy it toothpaste, to do anything at all, they have to attend closure before that can happen. So everybody has a need for closure at some point that they did. The exact nature of that point varies a both, say, by people. Different people have different a different degrees of the need for closure. Different cultures have different degrees of the need for closure. As a matter of norm, a cultural norm and different situations induce different degrees of need for closure in everybody. 

Tell us about one of those situations. You talk about something called seizing and freezing. I don’t know if that’s the way to explain it. 

Well, Susie, in freezing are the consequences of the need for closure. And what it means is that when you have this need for certainty and closure, you seize on any information that could provide closure and then you freeze up on it and become impervious and closed minded to other potentially relevant a bits of information. So you decide that somebody is lovable or that somebody is despicable or that they this is an object that you want to buy and you are impervious to subsequent information. That is the instance of feeding and freezing the situation that induce that our various a situation that they a wants to conserve your energy, because considering further and further information requires effort, you guys are diverting your attention to two new and additional information. To the extent that your energies are limited, say you’re tired, you’re fatigued, you’re under time pressure. There is a very difficult to obtain that information and. And found these noisy all of these situations. And we have tons of accelerant on evidence to prove that you’ve used this big foreclosure. And then what happens is that people season freeze on whatever information is most accessible in their own mind. 

OK, well, I want to talk about that experimental evidence a little bit, because something I hear a lot and I definitely don’t agree with it, but I’ll act like devil’s advocate, you know, channeling the voices of people who I don’t agree with. 

But they say, you know, oh, this is just psychology. And, you know, you’re measuring this based on people’s subjective self reported opinions of how they are. So how do you know you’re measuring what you say you’re measuring rather than what they are interpreting you as asking them? What is your response to that? 

Well, we have a variety of different ways of measuring the need for closure, we have a scale for them for closure, but we also have a theory of what it is. A heightened need for closure does. So, as with any experimental science, we manipulate the need for closure. And we look at the consequences. For example, in some experiments, we look at the tendency to a stereotype people because stereotypes are generally accessible, cultured, accessible ways of thinking about people. So say you have a woman or a an African-American or a professor, all of whom have some stereotypes attached to them under conditions that promote the Hynie foreclosure. We have evidence of that. 

These people use the stereotypes to a greater extent. They would perceive a the African-American who stereotypic ways they would perceive it as the professor, as the absent minded and smart. Perhaps they would perceive ay, ay, ay. And, you know, a fraternity member as a beer drinking under under conditions that prey theoretically conducive to meet foreclosure under time, pressure under noise. So we have the theory that we test through experimental evidence. 

And do you I mean, this is psychological research is not neuroscience research. Do we know what the brain is doing when we essentially closed down or is there any theory about that? 

There is very little theory about that. It probably has to do with centers of decision making. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I think that the A those are parts of the mind that they are concerned with. A a examination of large bodies of information are involved when and foreclosure is the heightened. But there is very little in a neuroscience knowledge at this point. It’s a very a kind of fundamental human phenomenon. And I’m sure that as we move forward with neuroscience, these things will be examined. 

We’ve also we’ve talked about this previously a lot. And you discuss closure in the context of sort of evolution. In other words, you argue that it makes perfect sense that an organism with a very, very complex brain that has to make decisions would have a mechanism like this. What what do you mean? 

Absolutely, because a consideration of information evaluating further and further bodies of information has no unique point of termination. One could go on obsessively and compulsively forever reexamining one’s ideas until one when you can, you can no longer move. So a mechanism is necessary to truncate that process and stop that incessant information processing and decide that they say they they they they rotis the free to pass. And there is no a automobile’s coming. And it’s safe that they the toothpaste that you’re buying is a good enough that the person you’re intending to marry is worthy of it. At some point an offer is enough and a you need to come to closure. So it’s inevitable that the examination of information is important, but also truncation of that process is inevitable. Otherwise, one could not a move one would one would experience a paralysis by analysis and the life could not move forward. 

Well, let’s see how this plays out in a context now, because your argument suggests we can measure closure, but that we see it everywhere in the real world. And one of the obvious places that you think we see it is in the global rise of religious fundamentalism, especially in the Islamic world. And of course, we’ve just had the Muslim Brotherhood rise from the revolution in Egypt and take power a bit. But this is a more general thing. How how does the need for closure explain something like that? 

They feel closure arises in a response to aversive uncertainty when uncertainty is very threatening, when things around you dissolved, when you have no orientation, no guidance as to how to conduct your life, no possibility of obtaining your goals and your objective, and then they need foreclosure kicks in. And once you have this new foreclosure, you try to adopt belief that provide you closure and fundamentalism and religion. Are those beliefs they defined very clearly what is good and what is right and what is more wrong and what is moral, and moreover, how you should behave in order to lead a good life. So we have a variety of a historic example that when a world order around you dissolves, for example. A gibbons’ that the famed 18th century, a British historian talks about the fall of the Roman Empire with the barbarians at the gate and how that they led to their proliferation of various religions. So when this uncertainty, then they they they they the Pax Romana, their own order is dissolving all around you. You look for alternatives that provide you knowledge with structure. And the same kind of argument has been made with respect to the rise of fundamentalism in Islam and other places. When the globalization and modernization, it introduces tremendous uncertainties and they particularly in the levels of population that they seem to be ill equipped to deal with these new developments. Then there is a quest for a way of thinking, an ideology that provides answers to all the perplexing questions. And this is very, very frequently found in religion that has all the answers. 

And I guess at the extreme, you find not only fundaments, religion, but then you find certain people who, I guess you would say are very, very high on the need for closure. Something has made them this way where they actually become become violent extremists. And so you would have terrorists. Is it is it. Yeah. I know you’ve done research on terrorists. Is it pretty much generally true that they’re all high need for closure people? 

Well, we have evidence from actual terrorist detainees in Philippine prisons that they are members of the Tamil Tigers, they of Islamize three Lanka, that they they have a a those of them who are more committed to the movement, more committed to a divine ideology, are also higher on the need for closure. And it makes a lot of sense because because they say aggression and violence is a kind of translation into action of a extreme categorization of good and bad. If somebody is really, really bad, all they deserve is a violent end. And the and therefore, people who are on the need for closure and thinking these black and white, the cutting categories tends to act upon them. And if somebody is totally despicable, extremely bad and unworthy, then eat a provide the justification for violence and aggression against him. So we find that the relation with real samples of terrorists and then it’s also very understandable, a theoretically and UDR when you say real samples of terrorists, I mean, this is fascinating enough that maybe allows for a little more detail. 

You say that you’re interviewing them in prisons. Tell us a little more about that. 

Yes. Well, we have been fortunate enough to have access in the Philippines and now in Sri Lanka. I just got back from Sri Lanka on two trips where I reported on our findings to the secretary of defense and the secretary of defense of Pakistan was also interesting that we have access to thousands of former members of their a liberation Tamil Tigers of Islam. One of the most they vehement, most violent, a terrorist organization in the history of terrorism credited with a merger is over the heads of countries, the academics, journalists, ministers, generals and so forth. And there we have been able to administer to them our psychological measurements to maybe 10000 of them. And we have some very interesting findings. And we also have findings from and from a sample of a Filipino, a terrorist and Filipino Muslins members of the Abu Sayyaf organization affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah, which in turn is affiliated with al-Qaida. And they we have been granted access to a prison in Manila and administered our test to them. And we are continuing this research in a variety of countries with populations that are vulnerable to terrorism. 

Well, that’s that is fascinating and important work. Let’s go further into into this, because in one of your papers that you sent me, you talk not just about the mind of the terrorists and how the mind of the terrorists seeks closure, but also them the group’s psychology of the people or the country, the nation that is attacked by a terrorist and how they respond and how closure seeking occurs there for the vulnerable or the actually the aggrieved. How does that work? 

Well, under threat, as you say, the kind of uncertainty and in, say, a terrorist attack like 9/11 inducive promotes a tremendous need for closure and that they need for closure in turn translates into counter aggression, into vehement support for toughness. Against terrorism, very often at the expense of other human rights, a considerations, other moral norms say that who would they put to these measures in check? So in the same sense, in the sense says that the the terrorists a response to what they perceive as threat and with aggression toward the US that their perceived enemy, we as a country, a reacting the same way to the perceived threat of the terrorists. And we become as aggressive or maybe not as aggressive, but as punitive toward them as they as they they have been toward us, often at the expense of other considerations. Once they you know, this idea of a responding to a and to a need for closure to the uncertainty with violence and determined action takes over, all other considerations tend to it pale into insignificance and our cast aside. And that can get a a. Our nation has all kinds of a problematic thing. You know, there there the Patriot Act, the all the way to torture that they sometimes say can happen. 

Well, let me just sort of devil’s advocate here again and sort of defend those who would defend hard measures against terrorism. I mean, what do you say to the argument that, okay, we know the terrorists are close minded and singular of purpose, black and white thinking they’ve got to attack their enemy. I mean it. Aren’t these exactly the kind of people who are only going to respond to really strong measures that include, you know, showing military strength? 

I think the military strength is important in some instances. And were some people who are a would not be persuaded otherwise. But I think the use of military strength is a two edged sword. It also inevitably produces bitterness and the rage on part of the a party that is suffering that violence, especially when people who are innocent as it is inevitably the case, are also suffering. And the A. a.. Come to them and the casualties. So one has to use violence. A. in combination with alternative ways. I’m now coming from Sri Lanka and the what the government did that after defeating the Tamil Tigers on the ground quite decisively, they instituted a rehabilitation program that they view that they offer. They they detained the terrorists, a vocational ed, the a Kalfus, the spiritual courses, the artistic activities in order to sway them away from this. 

A closed mindedness opened their minds to their own private individual pursuits and for provide them an alternative to a meaningful way, a way of life, meaningful closure that does not involve violence. 

And does it does that work? I mean, again, I can just hear, you know, someone who was really behind something like the Patriot Act and, you know, ultimately the war in Iraq that followed, say, you know, kind of really, really resisting that kind of treatment because they’re so strong. They’re so strong and willing to respond in a tough way. And if you, you know, give people art lessons or something, I mean, they’re just that’s just going to mean enrage someone who wants to respond to being attacked. 

Well, I’m not saying that the military response isn’t appropriate. It’s necessary. And in fact, it’s only after the military option was taken off the table for the Tamil Tigers, then they are opening up their mind. They may have occurred, but I think a as Bruce Hoffman and a known terrorism expert recently quipped, you cannot kill them all. And they everybody knows that there is no military solution to anything. So at the end of the day, you’ve got to make peace. You have got to make a a conciliation with with your erstwhile enemies. And whereas it’s important to convince everybody that they might say that the violence against us would not work and we know how to take care of ourselves. We cannot ameliorate everybody. And we have to understand that there is the other side of the story. We do not want to fuel AIDS, to fuel enmity, to fuel a new nation. And we want to even as we prove that the violence would not work. We want to extend another possibility of reaching a closure. That would not be detrimental to a subsequent inter-group relations. 

Why? Yeah, I want to thank you for this. And I know I’m drilling down on this point cause I think it’s one of the most profound and current implications for for policy and for, you know, world. You know, how countries relate to each other, how people relate to each other in this in this. Yes, sir. Thanks for. Thanks for letting me flesh it out a bit. What’s fascinating about this is at the same time that, you know, you can see closure in these mega conflicts that have gotten the attention of the whole world. Violence of wars, racism, extremism. You also you say that you see it in much more mundane, mundane places like, you know, who you choose to date and how you fall in love. How can it be working in all these different areas? 

Well, the beauty and the importance of the need for closure construct is that if they really insinuate itself to all decisions, whether large or small. So we’re in the same way as we decide that we want to aggress against the terrorists. We decide on who we want to date. And the A you know, people, whoever a highly foreclosure, tend to decide very quickly on the basis of very little evidence that somebody is there, an appropriate date and appropriate partner, an appropriate person to marry other people who have a very lonely foreclosure. And as a matter of fact, I haven’t I need to avoid foreclosure and take forever in the same way as they take forever in ordering a meal at the restaurant and to the detriment of all day a their companions who already are hungry to get started. They will they and examine and vet day a many, many candidates before they decided somebodies were, say, a getting involved with. So the very same processes of decision making insinuate themselves and play a role in big decisions and small decisions and intermediate decisions. And of course, I’m not suggesting that falling in love is a small decision, but it’s a different decision then a kind of policy, a decision to go to war with another nation and so on. 

But I mean, I guess when we look at fundamentalists and we say, oh, you know, those people are closed minded, I guess we should kind of I mean, is this what you’re saying? We should kind of like check ourselves and say, well, you know, I’ve I’ve had that moment, too. I just didn’t have it in that sphere. I had it in some some more mundane sphere. Or do we need to make a distinction between closure in your life and closure on the world stage in ideology, or do they bleed into each other? 

They bleed into each other in the sense that the same mechanism is involved, but that mechanism can be a stable mechanism that characterizes you as a person. Some people are more closed minded than other people in general, across domains, across spheres of life. Some cultures are more closed minded that they emphasize order and they cannot tolerate ambiguity in other cultures. Some cultures is much more open minded and they are reluctant actually to come to conclusions. Some cultures is a find that the coming to clarity is really offensive and impolite in the sense that if you a form a definite opinion, you might be offending somebody with a different opinion. And as a consequence, these cultures. I like diplomats. They never a formulated, very crystallized point of view less there. Somebody will be offended. So does these differences between people, between cultures, between situations. So we all come to closure in some situations more than others when we are very tired. We don’t want to hear arguments. We don’t want to consider other points of view. We’re just too fatigued. So this is not a good time to engage us into a very extensive debate. 

Mm hmm. Well, I guess I want to ask here. I mean, you say people differ and we should have addressed this earlier, but we didn’t. And cultures differ on the basic need for closure. And you ascribing that to to what exactly? I mean, you know, there’s a I mean, this is personality. So is there a genetic part to it? Is it your childhood? I mean, what is it? 

Well, cultures. I mean, cultures that evolved in the context of nations and the A.. There is interesting work by a colleague of mine who is a cross-cultural psychologist, and she finds that a a density and the history of conflicts from the 15th century predict close mindedness of the present of various cultures. So, you know, a culture that is there confronted with threats or with a dearth of resources. So with a high population density, they need closure to guide their life. They need strict norms. They need the rules and regulations. And they as a consequence, they they evolve a culture that is very high on order and closure. Other cultures are in less of diverse. It’s less than, say, densely populated, the less is exposed to conflicts and wars and they are more eh eh, able to consider alternative options and the less need for very regimented, orderly a way of life. So cultures differ in that respect. And they these are the kind of evolutionary conditions wherein they cultures and individuals evolve, which are adaptive. 

So a foreclosure is adaptive to environments that require a great deal of guidance, a great deal of order and regimentation. 

Well, let’s talk about U.S. politics just a little bit, because, I mean, there’s lurking behind this whole discussion is kind of a I don’t know if you’d go that far. There’s kind of a grand theory of history here where, you know, Evan, even in a time of instability, people seek closure. 

That leads to fundamentalism, that leads to more dogmatic government. You know, you can sort of you can sort of imagine this narrative. I mean, in U.S. politics, let’s let’s see how it plays out, because it seems to me that there was a pretty dramatic fear and uncertainty creating event. And I’m not talking about 9/11. Let’s remember, although that was one. But let’s think of one more recent. That was the economic crash, the Great Recession, and the stock market lost. You know, I forget how many thousands of points, but very fast, like 4000 or something like that. Everybody was terrified. Is this stoked? All kind of fear. 

And then U.S. politics emerged from that. I think it merged. Everybody knows it emerged more extreme and more polarized. Would you explain that in this way? 

I think so. I think uncertainty, economic uncertainty is a good economy, uncertainty that promotes a high need for closure and that in turn promote, say, they unwillingness to take risks for a lot of a A. Economists are now way discussing the fact that the it’s the economic uncertainty that they blame Obama, President Obama for a daisy, a creative producing the kind of a holding on to the cash of various U.S. companies and unwillingness to invest in new ventures. 

So that’s one one consequence of this uncertainty. The other consequence is under himy foreclosure. 

People latch onto straws, they go and a season freeze on whatever ideas are suggested to them, which suggest that under that some uncertainty, you have the extreme reactions and kind of spikes and impulsive reactions of buying and selling. And the kind of a vicissitudes of debt of the stock market that we see these days are a reflective of that day, I think. 

Well, it seems like it is everywhere. So let’s let’s get down to the make make use of this in your own life, this knowledge. I mean, how does someone catch themselves when they’re being closed? What are the sort of the telltale signs that if you see them, you, like stop and just in just say, oh, God, I got to. I’ve got to calm down. I got to think this through more. 

I think, a, you know, the idea stage for decision making and the choosing is to have a balance between closure and openness and the reaching an optimal state. So. Because at some point you will have to close. But the question is how how soon are you going to close? If you feel extremely irritated with a alternative viewpoint, that means that you may be too close minded if you feel that you’re absolutely right. And the alternative ideas, they are just annoying and not worthy of consideration. Then you better check yourself out. You can also understand and have a sense understanding through the kind of conditions that are likely to make you impatient with new information and closed minded. For example, a, if you are a morning person late in the evening, you might be fatigue. This is not a good time for you to undertake decisions if you are a nice person. The morning is not the time where you should ponder things of great significance. You should. They understand that the time pressure is likely to promote the oray a adhering to conventional points of view. Your you, your tendency to be conformist and go with the crowd and join the group. Is it likely to be exacerbated under conditions. A of a fatigue of noise, of time. Pressure, so sense understanding, understanding the dynamics of closure and understanding that a balance is optimal. I can help you navigate your decision making process. 

Well, that. Yeah, I guess. Conclusion, then, is sort of a guy, say, Aristotelian, it’s we need to have moderation in all things. Don’t be too close. Don’t be too open. And we’ve beaten up on the closed people a lot here. So let’s I mean, let’s let’s end let’s close. Right. By talking about the open people. I mean, they you know, when you hear someone described as being too wishy washy, too indecisive, I can never pin him down. They’re always late. All these kinds of things. I mean, that’s that’s a negative, too, right. 

And it is a negative. They are incapable of making decisions. And in some situations, in decisiveness is very detrimental. For example, in the campaign of a George W. Bush against a John Kerry and major allegation against Kerry that he’s a flip flopper. And that’s a, I think, survey. Seventh, Bush. Well, the idea that somebody is inconsistent. Very day. 

The idea that the people who are very high on the need to avoid closure, A, are unable to commit to anything that they’re somehow less patriotic, less lawyer, let’s say a less and less committed to to their profession, their nation, their friends. These kind of things, they go with being too open minded, thoroughly atavistic, a kind of culturally relativistic that anything goes. These are the kind of allegations that one can be criticized in terms of open mindedness. But it’s not about criticizing the close minded or the open minded. Both are an inevitable part and parcel of being human. The question is understanding that a both the deleterious and the positive consequences of each and navigating your own decision making process and that of your children and your close ones through understanding of the dynamics of close and open mindedness. 

Well, I think that’s a great note to end on, and I think a lot of our listeners will be actually be thinking well in watching themselves a little more when they act closer, when they act to open after hearing all this. 

So, Ari Kuklinski, thank you so much for being with us on Point of Inquiry. Thank you very much. Great. It was a pleasure. 

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Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney