A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor Arie Kruglanski about our need for cognitive closure during COVID-19

Interview with Arie Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, and co-founder and senior investigator at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START).

How do our personal impressions, experiences and attitudes, related to the coronavirus pandemic, affect who we are as individuals, our relations with others, our values and our perceptions of the world?

Arie Kruglanski ESMH scientistArie Kruglanski: The pandemic introduces a great uncertainty — uncertainty in regards to the troubling aspects of the future. Objectively everything is uncertain; we never know what can happen, but we are optimistic and we carry on doing the things we always do. We’re generally optimistic, but the pandemic introduces a possibility of very bad things happening. So it’s not the uncertainty as such, but rather the specter of something very bad happening. There are two major threatening events: one is the danger to health — of our own health or our close ones, especially those older or vulnerable. It’s very scary because we can lose them. In the United States alone, we have surpassed half a million deaths. Similarly, Europe has too. The second big threat is to the economy, and our economic wellbeing. People are getting fired, people’s businesses are getting shuttered, restaurants are closing all over. These both are very threatening and they threaten our sense of who we are, in the sense that we lose our significance. All of a sudden we are fragile, we are helpless. Our place in society depended on us being able to take care of ourselves, economically and physically, and all of a sudden, we are weakened and our freedom is reduced. That is the main impact of the pandemic; the fragility, the vulnerability, the susceptibility, and the fear that this uncertain situation raises because it contains very bad possibilities.

Arie Kruglanski: Now, what does it do to people? When you have that kind of uncertainty, you have a ‘need of closure’ and you want certainty — but not just any certainty, you want a certainty that will promise good, optimistic outcomes and will tell you what you can do in order to improve your outcomes. So when you feel threatened, frightened or vulnerable because of the pandemic, then you want a certainty that things will be good. This quest for specific certainty — as a promising and optimistic certainty — is a major consequence of the pandemic. However, it has a very troubling aspect in that it opens our psyche to the possibility of simplistic solutions and often incorrect, flawed, and invalid theories that promise greatness only if you believe or follow them. These theories have three elements: grievance, a culprit, and a method. If you are grieving, suffering or in pain, then there is a culprit for this and someone must be responsible (e.g. minority groups), and therefore we need to minimise that threat, fight or defeat it. So this craving for optimistic certainty has given rise to a variety of conspiracy theories, and patriotism or nationalism, for example, and we have also become very vulnerable to the news. Lastly, our weakness increases our dependency on others; because we feel weak, we need others to support us. This can lead to people being drawn to bad leaders, who seem strong, decisive, talk tough and exhibit a lot of certainty, but it can also lead to positive phenomena, in which people want to improve society and change their values or morals. For instance, we have seen increasing acts of volunteerism where people are cooperating and helping each other as a community. Whether we like it or not, this huge crisis we are facing brings out the best but also the worst in us.

Arie Kruglanski: Leaders are very important in all this. If they are encouraging people to be unified, to help each other, and give them hope and an optimistic outlook, then people will also be open to positivity. However, the problem is — to some extent — that violence is very appealing as an avenue to significance. That has always been the case throughout history: if you’re powerful and violent, and people are afraid, then they will respect you. So violence is very difficult to compete with as a road to significance, but people are open to constructive narratives as well and we’ve seen a lot of that. I hope we will see more of that. The biggest challenge is how to provide for people’s needs in a socially constructive way rather than a socially destructive way.

Are these short-term effects or can they change us and the society more profoundly? If, so how?

Arie Kruglanski: The problem is that these elements in the individual psychology become amplified and, when they do, they may turn into a social movement. A social movement has an enduring quality to it. For instance, radicalisation occurs when this need for certainty is met by a narrative that provides certainty and is supported and validated by the network, which then creates a social movement. If it is just an individual then he or she can change, but once it is part of a social movement then the individual becomes part of that larger shared reality and it turns into a culture that gets validated and supported. It’s very difficult to change that. In the 19th century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill said that all social problems have their root in human nature, and that is exactly what happens in social movements. All the great social revolutions have to do with the amplified individual psychology of feeling pain, discrimination, and disenfranchised, which turns into a social movement that changes the history of the world. So the more it becomes a larger social movement, a larger culture, the slower it can change and the more difficult it becomes to defeat.

What is the need for cognitive closure and how does this influence how we think or our relationships with others?

Arie Kruglanski: Cognitive closure is a basic mechanism for our need to make decisions and carry out actions, otherwise we would be forever buried in thoughts. We would never decide on anything, we could always keep going and obsessively gather more and more information. The need for closure is the mechanism that nature gave us in order to stop gathering information and decide or act. For example, when you are about to cross a busy street, you look around and decide when the road is clear and then cross the street. If you are a person who is more obsessive, then you may look again and again. When you have closure, you don’t look for information anymore, you close your mind to any other information and are not interested, as you think you know. So people who have a high need for closure are not open to persuasion or new information, they know what they know and they have their truth. Some people genetically or culturally have a greater need for closure and are committed to clarity. For example, Greece is usually cited as a culture that is not particularly committed to clarity, so in that sense it is more open-minded, more flexible and less rigid, as opposed to Germany and Japan that are more committed and regimented (Culture’s Consequences, 2001).

Arie Kruglanski: In cognitive closure, there are not only individual and cultural differences but also situational differences that promote this need for closure. So when you need to act in a given situation, then you develop a need for closure. For example, in the case there is danger, you need to decide quickly whether to fight or flee, and therefore you have a need for closure. The same applies when it is very difficult to process information or you’re tired and don’t want to keep processing information. When the need for closure is aroused by uncertainty and fear, it predisposes you to come to quick closure or decisions, regardless of facts, and see the world in black and white. As mentioned earlier, this predisposes you to very simplistic solutions and theories that provide closure. Religions, for example, give you a great closure because they tell you how the world came to be or what to do. A person who is vulnerable and under high need for closure is very prone to simplistic solutions and theories, and is susceptible to extremist ideologies. As mentioned, in a situation of crisis such as that produced by the pandemic, people may be attracted to simplistic and outrageous conspiracy theories that provide answers and a path to action, namely fighting some alleged culprit responsible for one’s misery. Such circumstances can often also give rise to authoritarian regimes because these regimes provide certainty.

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