The Perils of Ambiguity

Two new books explore how the agony of uncertainty can fuel conspiracy theories, among other dangers.

By Gary Drevitch, published on November 3, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

On March 2, 1993, it appeared that the month-long standoff between Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and the Branch Davidians, a sect holed up in a compound near Waco, Texas, was about to end.

Thanks in part to veteran FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, the sect's leader, David Koresh, had already released 20 people, including 18 children. And on March 2, he agreed to surrender himself, along with dozens of others still inside, after Noesner helped arrange for the Christian Broadcasting Network to air a statement by Koresh. 

But no one came out. 

At about 6 P.M., the team received a call: Koresh had changed his mind: God did not want him to leave the compound yet.

Convinced that Koresh had toyed with them, the agents in charge of the operation were furious and started to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable assault. Despite further progress in the days ahead, including the release of several more children, Noesner was reassigned on March 25. After that, no one else left the compound.

On April 19, the agents in charge, having convinced U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that they had no other options, launched canisters of tear gas into the compound. Soon, a fire set by the Davidians engulfed the building, apparently exploding its store of munitions. More than 70 people died.

Why Noesner would have kept negotiating while his superiors pushed for closure is central to the thesis of Jamie Holmes's insightful new book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. Holmes's subject is ambiguity, how it challenges us, and how we respond. 

Noesner, one of the book's heroes, is almost preternaturally immune to the intense unease that ambiguity causes in so many of us. When Koresh reneged on his promise, Noesner tells Holmes, his team was unfazed. They knew the picture was still developing: Koresh's thoughts were in flux and would likely remain so. At the same juncture, the agents in charge embraced black-and-white thinking and focused on a snapshot: Koresh could not be trusted. Disaster followed.

A body of research, detailed by Holmes, shows that when faced with contradicting opinions, uncertainty, or other people's ambiguity, we tend to see patterns where none exist and embrace certainty when none is justified. As it happens, this is precisely the wellspring of conspiracy theories, the subject of Rob Brotherton's book, Suspicious Minds.

Brotherton, a research psychologist, relates the history of conspiracy theories, from the Illuminati and the Great Fire of London to Area 51 and the 9/11 attacks. But he is loathe to write off any of these ideas as limited to a lunatic fringe. "Nothing could be farther from the truth," he insists, citing surveys that close to a third of Americans think the government may be hiding evidence of aliens and that nearly 40 percent of Russians believe the United States faked the moon landing. We're at least as likely to know a conspiracy theorist, or to be one, as not.

And the bigger the event, the more we tend to embrace a conspiracy theory about it. Could a gunman really have acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy? It just doesn't seem reasonable to many of us—evidence of a psychological shortcut known as the "proportionality bias." "We want the magnitude of an event to match the magnitude of whatever caused it," Brotherton explains. "Put simply, we reckon big things have big causes." He argues that a primary reason we insist that Lee Harvey Oswald had to be part of a conspiracy, while accepting that John Hinckley acted alone in attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan, is that Reagan survived. Had he not, Brotherton imagines, the theories would have run rampant.

"The thing we want to avoid above all else is seeing the world as haphazard," Brotherton writes. "If things happen to us because of pure chance, we have little hope of comprehending, predicting, and controlling our fate. Believing that someone somewhere is in control—even if they don't have your best interests at heart—is preferable to thinking that the course of your life is dictated by nothing more than chance."

Brotherton can amuse with trivia: Those "protective" tinfoil hats that conspiracy theorists are often depicted as wearing originated in a 1927 short story by Julian Huxley, in which foil was a defense against a telepathic enemy. But the author's mission is not to poke fun, rather to explain why we are all susceptible to such beliefs, no matter how wise or powerful we may think we are.

To make this point, he quotes George Washington, who insisted that "no one is more truly satisfied" than he that there existed an Illuminati conspiracy; Theodore Roosevelt, who swore that behind his own "ostensible" government sat "an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people"; and Woodrow Wilson, who concurred that a shadowy power was "so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, and so complete" that even the titans of American business dared not "speak above their breath" to condemn it.

Devilish Discomfort

Both authors cite studies showing that  factors like fatigue, stress, distraction, and discomfort play a major, if unappreciated, role in how we respond to ambiguity. These and other environmental conditions, Holmes argues, heighten our appetite for order, as fast as we can find it, wherever we can find it—and those who know how to exploit these vulnerabilities can find themselves at a great advantage. 

Another hero of Holmes's book, the late Michel Thomas, was one master manipulator of uncertainty. Born Moniek Kroskof, as a young man in Poland he witnessed the rise of Nazism—a movement founded on "a dismissive, disdainful approach to uncertainty and moral complexity." In 1946, as a member of a U.S. Army counterintelligence unit bringing war criminals to justice, he posed as a senior leader of a neo-Nazi resistance group to gain information from a rogue former SS major. But he made sure that in advance of a critical meeting, the ex-major was blindfolded, left waiting on the back of a motorbike in the rain, hustled between cars, and taken through a string of faux security checks. When the man was finally brought before Thomas, it was in a room filled with weapons and piles of cash. Made to wait even longer while Thomas fielded calls and messages, the man had been rendered so uncertain of where he'd been taken and how powerful the man he faced was that he ignored holes in Thomas's facade, complied fully with his orders, and remained so convinced that he had met a senior leader of his movement that even after he and his cohorts were captured, he refused to believe that Thomas had been a spy.

Holmes contends that restraint in the face of such uncertainty is a critical type of personal intelligence, although one the research indicates is wholly unrelated to I.Q. Those who have it, he believes, will have a leg up in a transforming economy. "Today's puzzle is to figure out what to do," he writes, "when we have no idea what to do." 

Holmes urges organizations to create an environment in which workers respect ambiguity and can resist the urge for closure. Some already do: When the CIA suspected that it had found Osama bin Laden's safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it quickly tasked analysts to think of all the reasons why they might be spotting someone other than the terror chief pacing in the garden, a process known as "red teaming."

This ideal might be new to today's CEOs, but as Holmes points out, it's one that John Keats identified long ago, when he praised men of achievement for possessing "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Facing the Unknown

Recently published works discussed

Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories
by Rob Brotherton

Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing 
by Jamie Holmes

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