Grappling with uncertainty is an inherent part of being human. Every day, we face ambiguity of one sort or another, ranging in seriousness from a tough decision over where to get lunch all the way up to the terrible feeling of having a potentially life-altering eviction or health scare hanging over our heads.
To a certain extent, no one likes being kept on their toes, but some people are much more comfortable with limbo states than others. And researchers have found that this one psychological characteristic — how well you handle states of uncertainty and ambiguity — explains a great deal about you: It can often predict your politics, your openness to other sorts of people, and your ability to think creatively and make smart decisions under pressure.
In 1990, the researcher Arie Kruglanski first introduced the concept of “need for cognitive closure,” or “need for closure” for short, as an attempt to capture this tendency. Need for closure measures an individual’s need for “an answer on a given topic, any answer,” as Kruglanski put it, as “compared to confusion and ambiguity.” Kruglanski, working with fellow psychologist Donna Webster, developed a so-called “need for closure” scale, the goal being to provide a standardized way to measure natural human variation in need for closure. The basic idea is that someone who is high in need for closure is more likely to enjoy black-and-white stories with simple morals; to develop quick, hard-to-dislodge judgments about other people and other groups of people; and to feel more uncomfortable with being “left hanging” over some important issue. People lower in need for closure seem to have an easier time seeing in shades of gray — to understand that good people can do bad things (and vice versa), and to appreciate ambiguous endings or plotlines in film or books.
For the sake of preventing “spoilers,” if you’d like to learn about your own need-for-closure tendencies, take this brief test developed by the psychologists Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel — they adapted it from Webster and Kruglanski’s longer inventory — before continuing.
A quick note on your results: “High” and “low” here refer to the top quartile and bottom quartile of the sample of people this test was administered to when it was first developed, so it’s possible you would be rated differently if you were compared to some other group.
Those caveats in place, what can an individual’s level of NFC tell us? On its own, you can’t say anything for sure about someone based on this measure, but over the decades during which researchers have studied need for closure, certain tendencies have popped out. Roets said in an email to Science of Us that people high in NFC “tend to prefer an autocratic leadership and hierarchical group decision structure, while derogating group members with deviant opinions.” The higher you are in need for closure, in other words, the more important it is to you for everyone to know their proper place in a group. Relatedly, if you have a high level of need for closure you’re more likely to hold conservative political and religious views. “Basically,” wrote Roets, “anything that seems to provide quick and definite closure can be appealing to people high in NFC; most commonly these are things they know and are familiar with (traditions, the majority perspective) or things that are very clear (e.g., what authorities state, but sometimes also extremist views, for these are usually very unambiguous).”
Roets also said that high NFC is also correlated with higher levels of prejudice, as folks with this cognitive tendency appear to be more likely to fall back on racial and ethnic stereotypes. On the bright side, though, he explained that “they also seem to be more susceptible to the positive effects of inter-group contact, which means that if they get close personal friendships with a member of another race, they experience a greater drop in prejudiced attitudes than people low in NFC.”
In certain ways, having a low level of need for closure makes it easier for someone to understand complicated situations and make decisions in the face of confusion and uncertainty: People who are higher in NFC might “snap” onto a decision — possibly not the ideal one — simply to resolve all of that uncertainty, because they don’t like grappling with shades of gray. It’s a point Jamie Holmes makes repeatedly in his book, Nonsense, the Power of Not Knowing — he even argues that the federal government’s disastrous and tragic siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 can be attributed, at least in part, to a high need-for-closure attitude on the part of one important federal agent.
That said, it’s important not to ignore the fact that there’s a little, well, ambiguity when it comes to need for closure. For one thing, as Holmes told Science of Us, ambiguity doesn’t always lead to negative or uncomfortable feelings; “there’s great research that shows that if we’re uncertain about whether someone’s romantically interested in us, or if we’re uncertain about whether something good or really good might happen to us, then those experiences are even more pleasurable than they usually are.” That is, if uncertainty about an outcome makes you feel really uncomfortable, but then things work out, you’ll feel even better than you would have if you hadn’t felt all that uncomfortable while you were waiting.
It’s also important to note that one’s level of NFC isn’t entirely stable — all else being equal, when we feel comfortable and safe, our level of need for closure goes down. When we feel threatened, it goes up. Finally, there could be downsides to having NFC that’s too low, since at some point you just need to make a decision and move on. Having some level of need for closure nudges us toward deciding.
Overall, though, there is strong reason to believe that high need for closure is a more common culprit in poor decision-making than low need for closure — think of all the times a failure to appreciate nuance and complexity has led to disasters in human history. Luckily, there’s at least a bit of evidence that you can nudge your need for closure downward, according to Holmes. One simple thing to do is read fiction. And when you’re faced with a complicated decision, he said, carefully writing down the possible consequences of each possible choice can also reduce the odds that you’ll rush the process.
So given all the variation in need for closure, the point here isn’t really that having a lot or a little of it is “better” in all instances — rather, it’s that knowing where you sit on the scale can help you better understand your own tendencies, preferences, and decision-making processes. The more you can anticipate your reaction to a complicated, fast-moving situation, the better you’ll be able to handle it.