Uncertainty and the need for cognitive closure (NFCC)

Narratives of violent extremism and conspiracy theories meet the human need for cognitive closure (NFCC), which is an innate aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty. People with a high rating of NFCC tend to be less receptive to diversity, prefer firm and immediate answers, and are more inclined to follow authoritarian leaders and apply stereotypes.20 This famous quote attributed to Adorno is among the first to allude to this link in the 1950s: “Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.”21 This discomfort with ambiguity leads to a preference for predictability. Time pressure, which is a typical feature in pandemics and other moments of social upheaval and rupture, increases NFCC, partly because the brain avoids spending its limited resources on costly reflection and analysis.22 Studies indicate that NFCC positively predicts receptivity to conspiracism and extremism, whether they are right-wing or its Islamist variant.23

Evidence-based social science and humanities have no overarching answers for some of our social, economic, and historical questions and existential challenges. The answers they do have are often partial or conditional and interwoven with uncertainty. Moreover, they address only limited dimensions of a phenomenon with multiple and often conflicting theories, methodologies, and approaches to it. These explanations are costly and demanding in terms of the currency of the brain’s processing power. Thus, commitment to evidence-based social science often results in a very discomforting and disquieting suspension. The alternatives provided by pundits, conspiracists, and extremists do not. For our closure-seeking brains, “I do not know” does not qualify as a valid answer. Thus, those who have an answer, even if it is not sound or evidence-based, satisfy NFCC and, thus, have the upper hand. As an example, we do not have a definite answer to the question of what causes the existing gap between developed and underdeveloped countries. There might be a variety of reasons for economic development depending on each specific country and its context. Extremists provide simple narratives to address these questions. For a disadvantaged, discriminated against, and underachieved engineer in the outskirts of Cairo, these complex theories hardly offer a compelling answer to his existential crisis. Conspiracy theories about events that arise out of the blue, such as those relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, appeal to this cognitive vulnerability. Science does not have easy, ready-made stories; conspiracies move in to fill the gap. NFCC and human discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty are among the most fundamental psychological traits that provide conspiracy theories and extremist narratives with fertile ground to grow and flourish. Even with the most advanced technologies, virologists need at least several weeks, if not months, to determine the lethality and infectiousness of a specific coronavirus variant. Humans barely have the patience to wait for lab results to arrive, much less peer-reviewed papers to be published, to reach a conclusion. Covid-19 conspiracy theories quench this thirst for certainty.24

Another related thinking pattern is that of intolerance to randomness. Researchers have indicated that digesting and processingaccidental events is extremely difficult for the human brain, especially if these accidents set off large-scale events. Regularity is an everyday human experience in many natural and cultural contexts: the diurnal cycle, seasons, and cultural rituals are examples of this regularity. Thus, humans seek structure, coherence, order, and regularity in events around them. Prediction and pattern extraction provides a sense of control over the natural environment that has proven to be essential for survival.25 Perceptions of order, regularity, and rules work in favour of the brain economy as they reduce the dimension of matters and make it easier to understand, process, store, communicate, and retrieve information. Researchers in diverse fields have conceptualised this disinclination to randomness in different terms and frameworks: from apophenia (an inclination to perceive connections in unrelated events) to patternicity and the clustering illusion.26 In fact, many real-world phenomena are a result of a sheer random and unpredictable sequence of irrelevant events. Exceedingly rare, random, and unpredictable events, the so-called black swans, may have been more consequential in changing the course of history than events with normal distribution. These extreme outliers may contribute more to our lives than regular events.27 This nothing-happens-by-accident heuristic leads to a proclivity to believe that behind every major event there must be a ‘plan’ or a ‘conspiracy’. How could a life-changing phenomenon such as a global pandemic be a result of a random passage of a virus from a bat to a human? There must be something else at work. How could the death of Princess Diana be random? How could the material and economic plight of the Muslim world be accidental? It must have something to do with a pre-planned and ancient Judeo-Christian plot to keep Muslims down rather than a plethora of social, economic, and, often, accidental causes. For the human brain that is so deeply inclined to seek patterns and plans behind events, accepting that events of such import are only a result of trivial accidents is a difficult ask.

[20] Arie W. Kruglanski et al., “Groups as epistemic providers: Need for closure and the unfolding of group-centrism”, Psychological Review 113.1 (2006): 84–100; Carsten K.W. De Dreu, Sander L. Koole, and Frans L. Oldersma, “On the seizing and freezing of negotiator inferences: Need for cognitive closure moderates the use of heuristics in negotiation”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25.3 (1999): 348–362.

[21] Quoted from Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Engineers of Jihad (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 132. Further Gambetta and Hertog explain that “[s]everal of the characteristics that right-wingers share with radical Islamists correspond to traits identified in the empirical literature: a hierarchical and authoritarian vision of social order as well as acceptance of social inequality are ideological features”. Ibid.

[22] Kruglanski, “Groups as epistemic providers”.

[23] Marta Marchlewska, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Małgorzata Kossowska, “Addicted to answers: Need for cognitive closure and the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs”, European Journal of Social Psychology 48.2 (2018): 109–117; Patrick John Leman and Marco Cinnirella, “Beliefs in conspiracy theories and the need for cognitive closure”, Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 378; Antonio Chirumbolo, “The relationship between need for cognitive closure and political orientation: The mediating role of authoritarianism”, Personality and Individual Differences 32.4 (2002): 603–610. Also see the special issue of Frontiers in Psychology, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”: https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/863/the-psychology-of-conspiracy-theories#articles

[24] Jan-Willem Van Prooijen and Nils B. Jostmann, “”Belief in conspiracy theories: The influence of uncertainty and perceived morality”, European Journal of Social Psychology 43.1 (2013): 109–115.

[25] G. Wolford, M.B. Miller, and M.S. Gazzaniga, “Split decisions”, in M.S. Gazzaniga (ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences III , (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 1189–1199; Jason Hubbard, Tanaz Molapour, and Ezequiel Morsella, “The subjective consequences of experiencing random events”, International Journal of Psychological Studies 8.2 (2016): 120–125.

[26] Michael Shermer, “Patternicity: Finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”, Scientific American 299.5 (2008): 48; Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky “Subjective probability: A judgment of representativeness”,  Cognitive Psychology 3.3 (1972): 430–454.

[27] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007).

Executive Summary