The Benefits of Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty

“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”

Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.

Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”

For most people, that’s pretty difficult. It’s natural for humans to be uncomfortable with uncertainty—if you don’t know what that dark shadow in the bushes is, there’s a good chance that it’s a threat. But beyond the caveman metaphors, there are benefits to being able to cope with ambiguity and ambivalence. Noesner thinks Koresh was of two minds about surrendering, and Holmes suggests that if the FBI had been more cognizant of that, it might not have rushed to attack the compound. He also suggests that in less strained situations, in our everyday lives, we might avoid a lot of anxiety and jumping to wrong conclusions by accepting that sometimes people do feel two ways at once. Things can be similar without being exactly the same. Some things we can never know.

I spoke with Holmes about the many ways that uncertainty shapes people’s behavior, and what gets lost when people seek clarity above all else. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Julie Beck: You present this idea, which I think comes from [the social psychologist] Travis Proulx, that there is a sort of unified theory of uncertainty that can explain all kinds of different things—willpower depletion, the way people tend to defend their beliefs when they’re thinking about death, all these things. So how does the idea of dealing with uncertainty play into so many psychological phenomena?

Jamie Holmes: [Proulx's] main problem is: Why is everyone describing these theories separately? We should be collaborating. He’s really describing a taxonomy of how people react to anomalies, contradictions. Sometimes we ignore the anomaly, sometimes we adjust the way we think, sometimes we just kind of affirm unrelated beliefs. Sometimes we get pattern-hungry and we start looking for more patterns. Sometimes we get more creative. Arie Kruglanski, who’s this social psychologist at the University of Maryland, his construct is the need for closure, which is our need for definite answers over confusion and ambiguity. It’s a consistency machine, really, is what he’s saying, and there’s all these ways that we’re looking for consistency. We need to establish order after experiencing disorder, and yes, it’s driven by the need for closure.

And it’s simply because the world is incredibly complex. The psychologist Jordan Peterson calls this the miracle of simplification. There’s just—there’s too much. So we need to constantly be reducing non-identical things to identical things, according to our preconceptions. Also we have to act. “Do I do A or B?”—there has to be some mechanism that makes us want to resolve that. Otherwise we would just deliberate forever, we would never act.

Beck: You write that there’s a “central meaning-making system that responds to incoherence in a predictable sequence”—can you outline the sequence? What happens when people are faced with something that doesn’t make sense?

Holmes: First you get a little shot of adrenaline; you’re surprised. This is from a paper from 2014 which was lead-authored by Eva Jonas. They say first you have the behavioral-inhibition system, which says, “Okay, there’s an error, now I kind of stop what I’m doing, now I look around, now I get more pattern-hungry, now I try to figure out exactly what it was that violated my expectations.” And then there’s the behavioral-approach system, and that’s action, that’s resolution.

Beck: But some of these things are kind of more unconscious processes, right? Like the reaffirming of your beliefs or what have you?

Holmes: Totally. That’s why, when people are testing those effects, they’re exposing people to anomalies subliminally. So they’ll flash them a reverse-color playing card [like a red ace of spades], or they’ll have words on a computer that are flashed too quickly for them to consciously notice. The reason they’re doing that is because they want the anomaly to still be there in the unconscious mind. It’s like if you notice something but you don’t really notice it. It’s still there, it’s still bothering you. You notice there was something off about that encounter, something strange. That’s when it shows how powerful this consistency motor is because we’re coming back to try to assert meaning in some way, even without realizing that we experienced something wrong.

Beck: Do you think these reactions are the same, whether the thing that’s making people uncomfortable is different colored playing cards or… death?

Holmes: Proulx’s line on this is that we prefer to affirm the same content in terms of what was violated. So we’re reminded of death, then we like to affirm the opposite, something meaningful, something with life. [But] you still see these effects, regardless of whether what was affirmed matches what was violated. So yeah, I can still show you playing cards, you can not notice them, and you can affirm whatever worldview it is that you believe in. After an anomaly, especially if you can’t quite figure out what it is, you’re just going to affirm those beliefs more strongly.

Beck: Do you think there’s a difference of degree depending on how unsettling the anomaly is?

Holmes: Yeah for sure. At some point it doesn’t make sense to talk about this without talking about the content of it. The ambiguity of whether or not my boss may fire me or the ambiguity of a medical diagnosis is just [in essence] much more threatening than the ambiguity of a red-spade playing card or the ambiguity of a Picasso exhibit at the MOMA. There are the consequences which of course come into play, and there’s also an element of, do I control this thing? Or if it’s at a museum, I can just watch it, it doesn’t affect me at all.

Beck: You mention, too, that whatever understanding of people’s reactions to ambiguity we have now stems back to scientists trying to understand Nazism. What was it about Nazism that made the study of ambiguity so relevant?

Holmes: Well, it was, how could this have happened? How could so many people be swept away in this ostensibly insane ideology? There was a Nazi psychologist who was saying—this is Erik Jaentsch in 1938—he was saying a healthy personality is characterized by certainty and order and an unhealthy personality is characterized by a tolerance for ambiguity. Extremism of any kind is characterized by a very high need for closure and a distaste for ambiguity. After the war there was a psychologist, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, and she basically reversed Jaentsch. She suggested that actually it’s the intolerance for ambiguity that characterizes the unhealthy mind.

And out of that came Kruglanski. And what he said was: Instead of pathologizing this, which seems like the obvious thing to do because this is so horrible and crazy, what if we all have a natural distaste for ambiguity and confusion that can go up and down? It was originally conceptualized as a personality variable, but then he began to explore situational factors. [For example,] threat makes it go up. He did an experiment where just reminding people of 9/11 raised their need for closure. And a high need for closure leads to stereotyping.

So the way I think about it is: We have this natural distaste for things that are unfamiliar to us, things that are ambiguous. It goes up from situational stressors, on an individual level and a group level. And we’re stuck with it simply because we have to be ambiguity-reducers.

Beck: In the book, you say that culture has a lot to do with people’s collective denial of ambiguity. Can you think of examples other than Nazism where people’s reactions to ambiguity might be culturally dependent?

Holmes: Well, Kruglanski describes the need for closure as content-free. So you’re going to have some variation but it’s applicable to all cultures and all ideologies. You can fit any ideology in it. So I think [we shouldn’t think] about culture as something which is a radical determinant of need for closure, because it’s not, but it just determines what you close on.

Beck: What are the implications of people’s individual differences in how well they handle uncertainty?

Holmes: There has been some suggestion that there are certain professions where you have to deal with ambiguity under a high degree of stress and one of them is negotiation. There’s a lot of literature that says business negotiations require dealing with ambiguity under pressure, which is going to naturally raise everyone’s need for closure. So Kruglanski says, look, one way to combat this is just hire people who are low in need for closure. Now there’s a simple test [for that], there’s a 15-question test, it’s on my website.

He says for a key position it makes sense to hire people who are low in need for closure, or have them in the decision-making process. There’s a similar suggestion in the medical context. Gail Geller, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, she said, I think on the MCAT we should put questions which test students’ comfort with ambiguity. Because there’s so much ambiguity in the medical context that we should have people who are good at dealing with it.

Beck: What do you get on the test?

Holmes: I’m right in the middle. Apparently I’m not excellent but not horrible. [Ed.: Gary Noesner scored “five points higher than the lowest possible score,” on a scale of 15 to 90, Holmes writes in his book.]

Beck: You write that “Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is so common that we might even consider it a baseline condition of human consciousness.” How does this ambivalence, which people experience all the time, complicate our ability to understand decision-making and behavior?

Holmes: For self-report measures in psychology, oftentimes it’s, “Please put your opinions into the category.” Is it Democrat or Republican? Or undecided. Whatever categories a psychologist may be studying are certainly going to be, just by definition, a neatening of reality. The categories are going to be rough approximations which will conceal variation or complexity in actual opinion. So I think that’s an issue. And I think the reason why ambivalence is just downplayed in general, is because we don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like to think of intentions as fluid or ambivalent and I think they are, far more often than we acknowledge.

Beck: In the epilogue, you talk about the way people conceive of their lives as a narrative, how we think of the past as leading directly to the present, even if there actually were a lot of dead ends back there or things went in a circuitous route. How does uncertainty play into the way that people construct their life stories?

Holmes: I think part of this is control. If I can put my past into a story, then [I feel like] I was more in control of it than maybe I was. And also if it’s a story than [I think] I can predict where it’s going more than I can. I think that’s a very comforting idea, to be able to say, “I know where I’m going,” or “I know where the world is going.” There’s that great quote that everybody likes to use, from Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Are you sure? I think part of that neatening of the past is about control and the comfort of being able to predict where you’re going.

Beck: The ability to deal with and operate under confusion is different from IQ or what we normally think of as “intelligence.” It’s more like an emotional skill. But at the same time, these reactions to uncertainty seem to be, to some degree at least, hardwired. So can people get better at dealing with uncertainty?

Holmes: That’s why I think Kruglanski’s concept is so much better than these other competing conceptions, because it does acknowledge how situational factors change it. In experiments, the way that they lower people’s need for closure is, they tell them right before people are about to make whatever judgment, like of a job candidate or something, they tell them, “You’re going to have to defend your decisions later on,” or, “Think of the consequences of your decision.” It’s not enough to just say, “I should take my time before a decision” because we all know that, we just don’t do it. One strategy is to formalize those kinds of reminders. Write down not just the pros and cons, but what are the consequences of the decision? And also think about how stressed you are that day. Are you feeling rushed? Is your need for closure particularly high that day? Then it’s even more important to be deliberate.

And then there are some other things that just lower need for closure, that may be surprising. There’s some recent work showing that fiction lowers people’s need for closure, and thinking about multicultural experiences that you’ve had lowers people’s need for closure.

Beck: One quote I really liked, I think it was from the epilogue, is when you say, “We always think we’ve settled into ourselves and we’re always wrong.” How does our natural need for closure, the way we write our narratives, or how we deal with uncertainty—all these things, how do they affect people’s understanding of themselves?

Holmes: I think that we can take that idea about neatening history, and say, well, I’m developed now. I’ve been on this long journey but I’ve arrived. I think we have a general tendency to say that we’ve arrived or there’s some state of finality that we’re going to get at or we have gotten at. You see it in relationships. Rather than thinking of it as a process that you work on forever and ever, it’s “We’ve arrived at this place and I don’t have to do anything.” Or you see this in business. You do something successful, you had a successful product, and you’re like, “I have the formula. I can stop.” Partially it comes from all this effort that you put in struggling with uncertainty and the joys but also the pains of those experiences. And now you feel like I can just relax now, I’m out of it.

Beck: But you can never relax.

Holmes: Yeah, you can’t really. Sadly.