Reopening the mind: how cognitive closure kills creative thinking

Finding answers is a highly-valued skill in today’s world, where more than ever knowledge is power. We pride ourselves in quickly resolving issues and creating consensus. In job descriptions, companies clearly state that they are looking for problem solvers.

But what if this single-mindedness blinds us to more creative answers? What would happen if we became more comfortable with unsolved problems?

The need for cognitive closure is the motivation to find an answer to ambiguous situations — any answer that aligns with our existing knowledge. Not only can it lead us to make mistakes based on erroneous assumptions, but it can obscure the path to innovation.

The psychology of cognitive closure

Ideally, we should seek knowledge to resolve questions regardless of whether that new knowledge points to an answer that aligns with what we believe or what we want (“I don’t like this answer, but it is the most logical answer”). We should also accept the ambiguous nature of a situation for as long as we don’t have enough knowledge to resolve it (“I currently don’t know enough to answer that question”). That’s what we would do if we were rational agents.

But dealing with uncertainty feels uncomfortable, so we try to get to an answer as fast as possible, sometimes irrationally, as long as it seems to neatly close the open loops we’ve been struggling with — thus providing us with a sense of closure. That’s why our need for cognitive closure is related to our aversion toward ambiguity.

According to Professor Arie Kruglanski and his team at the University of Maryland, the need for cognitive closure manifests itself via two main tendencies:

  • The urgency tendency: our inclination to attain closure as fast as possible.
  • The permanence tendency: our inclination to maintain closure for as long as possible.

When we find ourselves in an uncertain situation, urgency and permanence act as irrational sources of motivation that push us to try our hardest to eliminate ambiguity and to arrive at a definite conclusion. We are compelled to find an answer, irrespective of its actual validity.

Some people feel more comfortable than others in ambiguous situations. Professor Arie Kruglanski and his team designed the Need for Closure Scale (NFCS), which, in their own words “was introduced to assess the extent to which a person, faced with a decision or judgment, desires any answer, as compared with confusion and ambiguity.”

Items such as “I think that having clear rules and order at work is essential to success” and “When dining out, I like to go to places where I’ve been before so that I know what to expect” will make you score higher. Items such as “Even after I’ve made up my mind about something, I am always eager to consider a different opinion” and “I enjoy the uncertainty of going into a new situation without knowing what might happen” are reverse coded.

People who score high on the NFCS are more likely to make stereotypical judgments and to distort new information so it aligns with their existing beliefs. Conversely, people who score low on the scale will display fluider, more creative thinking, and will be more open to new ideas and exploring new environments.

While our individual need for cognitive closure is mostly stable throughout our lives, it can sometimes be affected by specific circumstances. For instance, experiments show that under high time pressure, we’ll tend to use shortcuts to process information and get to a solution faster.

Just as heuristics can often be helpful, our need for cognitive closure can be beneficial in simple situations that require a quick answer. However, when faced with more complex problems that demand creative thinking, our need for cognitive closure can get in the way by motivating us to accept any answer that fits our existing knowledge, whether explicitly or tacitly.

Cognitive closure and creative thinking

A high need for cognitive closure may lead us to select only information that matches our current knowledge and may result in faster resolution. We may also analyze that information in ways that produce simple, quick solutions — but not always the best solution.

Another way cognitive closure impacts the way we think is by making us cling to our current ideas to maintain our sense of expertise. Instead of expending cognitive resources towards learning new information and dealing with the discomfort of uncertainty, we hold on to the reassuring perception of solid knowledge. Preserving the stability of our web of knowledge becomes more important than expanding it.

In contrast, a lower need for cognitive closure means we are more comfortable playing with many shades of gray and remaining in a situation where we don’t have an answer yet — and may never get to a satisfactory resolution.

Of course, you don’t want your need for cognitive closure to be too low, as in many situations we do need to make a decision at some point, even if we don’t have all the information. But more often than not, high cognitive closure can be blamed for rushed, unimaginative decisions.

Fortunately, our need for cognitive closure can be reduced by being intentional about the way we navigate ambiguous situations and by making space for productive mistakes.

Embracing ambiguity to unlock creativity

The first step is to know where you sit on the scale. The more you know how you tend to react in uncertain and complex situations, the better you will be able to manage your relative need for cognitive closure.

Researchers Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel from Ghent University created a short version of the questionnaire, with only 15 items. Here are the questions, where 1 means “strongly disagree” and 6 means “strongly agree”:

1. I don’t like situations that are uncertain.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
2. I dislike questions which could be answered in many different ways.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
3. I find that a well ordered life with regular hours suits my temperament.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
4. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
5. I feel irritated when one person disagrees with what everyone else in a group believes.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
6. I don’t like to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
7. When I have made a decision, I feel relieved.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
8. When I am confronted with a problem, I’m dying to reach a solution very quickly.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
9. I would quickly become impatient and irritated if I would not find a solution to a problem immediately.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
10. I don’t like to be with people who are capable of unexpected actions.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
11. I dislike it when a person’s statement could mean many different things.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
12. I find that establishing a consistent routine enables me to enjoy life more.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
13. I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
14. I do not usually consult many different opinions before forming my own view.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
15. I dislike unpredictable situations.1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6

Then, add up all your answers. Scores up to 30 mean low need for closure, and scores between 75-90 mean high need for closure.

If you find you have a high need for closure, here are some simple strategies you can apply so you can keep your mind open to competing possibilities when facing uncertain situations, and to avoid making decisions too fast.

  • Design a psychologically safe environment. Our need for closure goes up when we feel threatened, and it goes down when we feel safe to make mistakes. By fostering psychological safety and encouraging creative experimentation, you and the people you work with are more likely to open their mind to the power of uncertainty.
  • Fall in love with problems. Instead of trying to find answers as quickly as possible, train yourself to become comfortable with open issues that you know are unsolved. Richard Feynman recommended keeping a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind. He said: “Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”
  • Practice mind gardening. In French, my native language, we talk of ideas as seeds that need to sprout (“faire germer une idée”). Keeping your mind open doesn’t mean you should passively wait for an answer. When you find yourself in an uncertain situation, collect nuggets of information and grow your tree of knowledge by connecting ideas together. You may not get to a definite answer, but you will still generate interesting insights. Instead of building a prison of convergence, cultivate a garden of emergence.
  • Learn in public. Similarly, don’t wait until you have an answer to share it with the world, as this may lead you to rush to a clear solution. Instead, publish your early ideas, especially if they feel half-baked. You can do this on your blog, on social media, or in a public digital garden.
  • Decide when to decide. While reducing your need for cognitive closure will allow you to explore more innovative answers to complex problems, there will be times when you need to make a decision, whether it is because of time pressure or other imperatives. Know when questions can remain open, and when you should move forward, even if you wish you had more information. The DECIDE framework can be a useful tool to make a decision and then evaluate the result.

Liminal states can be uncomfortable, but they offer an unparalleled time for creativity. Some people are more comfortable than others in these moments of ambiguity, and the way we handle uncertainty greatly impacts our ability to think creatively under pressure.

Knowing your own level of need for cognitive closure can help you better navigate those unfamiliar spaces and ensure you don’t constrain your imagination by rushing to make a decision. Take a few minutes to complete the questionnaire, and see if you need to reopen your mind.

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