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?