The MWS Podcast 125: Arie Kruglanski on Close-Mindedness and the Middle Way

Our guest today is Arie Kruglanski. Arie is a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland College Park, and has been at the forefront of research into closed-mindedness-or, the “need for closure”— in particular its relationship to fundamentalist belief systems and violent extremism.
He is is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and has edited a variety of prominent journals, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition. During his long career he has received numerous awards, including the Donald Campbell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology.
His work in the domains of human judgment and belief formation has been disseminated in over 300 articles. He’s the author of six books including the psychology of close-mindedness and the psychology of terrorism and the themes explored in these books will be the topic of our discussion today

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

7 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 125: Arie Kruglanski on Close-Mindedness and the Middle Way

  1. I thought this was a great podcast. Kruglanski’s work is entirely new to me, and it’s good to find such an established academic very clearly supporting Middle Way approaches without reservation. There are a number of interesting points I wanted to pick up.

    The first was one about people who are afraid of closure and cling to a non-committal situation. What Arie didn’t point out, but I think is very germane here, is that this is also a position of premature closure – but in relation to the belief that we should avoid closure. An important example of this is in ethics, where the relativist or nihilist says there is no moral answer, and thus no closure to moral disputation, but this is also clinging to closure at a different (more complex) level of abstraction. So for me the Middle Way isn’t just about striking a balance between openness and closedness, but rather about finding a more adequate position between two opposed dogmas, one or both of which may think of itself as open but in practice isn’t. I’d be very interested to hear if Arie agrees with that point.

    Another interesting issue was that of the relationship between different types of practice. Arie was very strong on the primacy of desire, which made me wonder if he assumes the position of Hume, that “reason is the slave of the passions”. I do agree with him that critical thinking may not help, if it just gives us more resources for defending our entrenched positions, but critical thinking properly speaking involves increased awareness, through analysis, of our assumptions as such. Other practices, such as mindfulness, may do better in helping us synthesise so that we can adopt a wider perspective to begin with, but it’s not as though critical thinking is of no use: rather there are various directions from which we can stimulate a process of integration, and the cognitive can do so by testing its own limits.

    I was also interested in Arie’s conclusion that those with a strong need for closure are happier if they get it, but I wondered about the definition of happiness it is based on – perhaps just a self-reported release of tension in this case? If someone’s tendency to premature closure makes them rigid in their response to their environment, it also seems likely that they will have a ready source of unhappiness in their frequent collisions with aspects of that environment that don’t fit their world view. For example, imagine a US white racist who reacted negatively every time they saw a black person. At the same time, people can only achieve advances in happiness (or satisfaction of desires) from the position they start with. So surely a rigid person is likely to be happiest if they follow the Middle Way, defined here as reducing and holding off on their need for closure as far as practicable, but no further? I think of Kathryn Schulz’s story about the white racist who changed his attitudes after being obliged to encounter and talk to a black woman, or indeed Arno Michaelis’s personal story in a previous podcast. Surely these people are happier now, for having loosened their need for closure in the past?

  2. First, I want to thank Robert for your insightful and intriguing comments. I found them thought provoking and am happy to provide the following responses:

    The idea of commitment to non-commitment is novel and intriguing, it relates to the phenomenon of motivated ignorance, not wanting to know (e.g. the manner and timing of one’s death, or in some cases the gender of one’s to be born child), and “leaving the epistemic field” altogether with respect to a given question. That is not, however, what I conceived of to be the consequences of the need to avoid closure concept. The way I thought about it, rather, is that the need to avoid closure is predicated on the conscious desire to have knowledge on a topic. The need for cognitive closure predisposes one to keep thinking and generating possibilities, rather than “freezing” on a given judgment. It is a state of epistemic flux, and even when the possibilities seem to be exhausted and a given judgment seems impelled by the evidence, one is still vigilant and sensitized to possible alternative ideas. In such circumstances one’s state of knowledge defines an unstable balance, and a readiness to reopen the case at the slightest opportunities. It is an epistemic state wherein the threshold for doubt is very low and one is perennially prepared to reconsider one’s judgments and positions.

    With respect to the second comment, yes, I agree with Hume that “reason is a slave to passions” and am honored to have come up with this idea independently (haha) of this great thinker. I was also wondering what exactly one means by the notion of “critical thinking” does one mean the acquisition of special cognitive skills, or a critical stance. I rather think the latter in which case the issue is motivational rather than cognitive. That is, one is motivated to retain one’s vigilance to alternative possibilities rather than becoming too confident about one’s current states of knowledge. If that is the interpretation then the notions of critical thinking comes very close to my concept of avoiding closure as discussed in my answer to your first comment.

    Finally, with respect to the third comment, a person who is high on the need for cognitive closure would be happy (be definition) if he or she has closure. In those circumstances, too, she or he would be relatively impervious to contrary ideas or evidence inconsistent with their closure. But such closed mindedness is not absolute, simply because under some circumstances the inconsistent evidence may come from a source with impeccable epistemic authority (i.e. a source that one is committed to viewing as wise and expert) or the inconsistent evidence may be consistent with another motivation. For instance, a person prejudiced against people with color may find herself in a situation where a person of color is her savior, or her boss, which motivates liking. In such circumstances, the high need for closure individual may quickly switch sides, suddenly “see the light” and entrench herself in a newly found Truth. This kind of person recalls what Erik Fromm dubbed as the True Believer, a communist that under the appropriate circumstances transposes himself to Nazism, a committed atheist who suddenly converts to become a religious zealot, etc.

  3. Hi Arie,
    Thanks for getting back to me.

    From what you say about my first point, does it follow that you’d accept that there are people who seek premature closure in a way that is formally attached to theoretically open positions, but that you also think there are other people who are just plain indecisive? I still wonder if the indecisive people are not implicitly attached to a unconscious view that justifies their indecisiveness – but perhaps, as a scientist, you will find that too speculative!

    On the second, I agree that it does depend on how one defines ‘critical thinking’. As someone who has taught it as a skill-based subject in colleges, I’d see no way of separating motivational and cognitive elements in practice. Just teaching people logic, for example, does not necessarily help them to apply critical thinking in real situations at all, because they have to reflect on and practice alternative critical ways of responding to the actual complex stimuli that occur in speech or text – which requires engagement with biases. If you’re interested, I’ve written an academic-style paper on the practical inseparability between fallacies and biases: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283460051_Cognitive_error_as_absolutisation.

    As regards Hume’s dictum, I disagree with it: on the grounds that we do not, and cannot, have enough evidence to support such a sweeping and absolute claim. It is deterministic, and determinism seems to me to be a damaging dogma. There seems to be a philosophical slippage involved from the scientific recognition of *conditions* to an a priori assumption of *determinants* which we never have enough evidence to support. We also don’t have enough evidence to support freewill, whether in epistemic or moral judgement; so agnosticism on the subject seems the only position that respects our ignorance sufficiently and avoids absolutisations. Whether that means I disagree with you, though, I’m not sure and will not leap to conclusions! It may be that you are in practice interpreting the language more cautiously than Hume did.

    On the third point, I agree with your observation of what I tend to call ‘flips’ between opposed absolutes, of which dramatic conversions are a good example. But the preservation of the flip as the only way of changing one’s position is a function of absolutisation, which I’d see as the obsessive defence of a position *against its perceived opposite* with the repression of third alternatives. To be absolutely rigid in one position you do need to have an idea of an alternative, but the alternative consists in little more than the negation of the position you hold, so that when you are finally forced to change your position through circumstances, the dominant conception of what you’re doing is negative in relation to the old belief. The opposite is, in a sense, part of the framing, but that framing also excludes any other alternatives (what is often referred to, in Buddhist or similar circles, as dualism).

    However, the issue on this point seems to depend on what we mean by ‘happiness’. I was suggesting that people are generally ‘happier’ if they face up to conditions, while you say that someone who needs closure is happier ‘by definition’ if they get closure. We’re obviously making different assumptions about what ‘happy’ means. Do you mean by ‘happiness’ the fulfilment of immediate desires? And are you basing it on self-reporting? Like Aristotle, I’d rather see happiness as a probable (though not inevitable) side-effect of more sustainable or integrated states. I discuss some of the issues around happiness in this blog. http://www.middlewaysociety.org/the-happiness-delusion/

  4. Hi Robert;

    Yes, I do accept that some people may be committed to a theoretically open position as a matter of conscious decision. For instance, the post modernists who believe that Truth does not exist may exemplify that stance. Yet even the latter reach confident (i.e. subjectively true) judgments, e.g. in matters of perception. hey confidently cross the street when the road seems free of traffic, etc. I assume that in epistemic matters people strive to reach what they perceive as true judgment. In Popper’s terms Truth is a regulating ideal that governs judgment formation (in science and lay epistemics alike). Other motivations may bias judgments, but they do so unconsciously. In other words, no one will justify the judgment they made by invoking say the need for closure or the need to reach specific conclusions (wishing does not make it so, after all). For instance, individuals may be indecisive because of an (unconscious) motivation to avoid closure (e.g. because of the fear of making a mistake, or of the narrowing of options that comes with cognitive commitment to a given judgment).

    On the second point, I look forward to reading your piece. As of now, I lean toward the motivational interpretation, but I could be swayed of course.

    Now as for Hume, let me clarify my position a bit. I assume that judgment formation is motivated, and in that sense reason is the handmaiden of passion, that is, motivation. I also assume (as explained above) that consciously judgment formation is motivated by the ideal of Truth. The notion of forming a judgment one believes to be untrue is an oxymoron. Unconsciously, however, different motivations, the need for nonspecific closure, or for specific conclusions (see a couple of recent papers by my student Jocelyn Belanger et al) may bias judgment and lead people to form what they perceive to be a true judgment because it corresponds to these motivations. Does that mean that people believe simply what they wish to believe (a “strong” interpretation of the Humean position). No! People are constrained by “reality.” For example, we would like to succeed at an exam, have our grant accepted, or believe that we are free of disease, but in many circumstances we reach the opposite conclusion. Psychologists call it “reality constraints” on motivated judgment. However, please note that these “reality constraints” are themselves judgments and they are themselves motivated. So in confronting a desirable judgment (I succeeded) with an undesirable judgment (the referee informed me that I failed) I am confronting two motivated judgments and the stronger motivation prevails. This could perhaps qualify as the modern version of Hume’s dictum, albeit based on contemporary research on the role of motivation in judgment.

    As to the third point, the relation between the fulfillment of motivations and happiness, we seem to be in agreement. I assume, perhaps along the lines of Aristotle, that ultimate happiness and well being depends on the balanced satisfaction of basic human needs (psychological theorists from Freud onwards have assumed a set of such needs, although the cleaved the motivational space differently depending on the author). In a recent piece (Kruglanski, A. W., Jasko, K., Chernikova, M., Dugas, M., & Webber, D. (2017). To the fringe and back: Violent extremism and the psychology of deviance. American Psychologist,72(3), 217-230.
    Link: http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-13879-003). We interpret in this way, the phenomenon of extremism of various kinds (including violent extremism), namely in terms of privileging one need (say for personal significance) and suppressing other basic needs. Such suppression cannot be sustained for very long, hence the person isn’t likely to be very happy because of the return of the repressed needs so to speak who demand their fulfillment.

  5. Thanks, Arie. As I suspected, we don’t really disagree very much, except possibly on Hume’s dictum. I take what you say about the way in which motivations may contest with each other, but that’s still open to a deterministic interpretation – so I remain unclear as to whether that’s what you intend. By making a distinction between conditions and determinants I was wanting to point out the unavoidable limitations on our understanding of motivations. The fact that we can attribute certain causes to them does not establish that these causes account for their whole determination. A ‘handmaiden’ is in a position that is at least potentially more voluntary than a ‘slave’. But I would not attribute any possible cracks in the determinism to ‘reason’ – rather to the awareness that is supported by the interaction of formerly repressed or opposed motives. I wouldn’t talk only in terms of people’s *constraint* by motives of ‘reality’ as opposed to those of ‘wishful thinking’, but rather of the integration of those differing motives broadening the level of awareness at which judgements can be made.

    1. Hi Robert;
      FYI, please see below the references to two of our papers on motivated distortion, as per our discussion. Best, Arie

      Bélanger, J. J., Kruglanski, A. W., Chen, X., Orehek, E., & Johnson, D. J. (2015). When Mona Lisa smiled and love was in the air: On the cognitive energetics of motivated judgments. Social Cognition, 33(2), 104-119.
      Link: http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/soco.2015.33.2.104

      Bélanger, J. J., Kruglanski, A. W., Chen, X., & Orehek, E. (2014). Bending perception to desire: Effects of task demands, motivation, and cognitive resources. Motivation and Emotion, 38(6), 802-814.
      Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-014-9436-z

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