Mental Maps and Cognitive Gaps

How does a person's need for closure influence decision making?

Posted Jan 13, 2016

Katherine Ramsland
Source: Katherine Ramsland

It’s important for people who make judgments that affect others’ lives to understand the potential impact of blind spots about their own needs and biases. Such decisions are often so automatic that people don’t realize how their perspective flavors what they view as facts. If decisions feel good, they’re accepted as right, even truth. Yet feelings of rightness can arise merely from what’s familiar or safe.

In an earlier blog, I described a mental map, or a cognitive positioning system (CPS). It’s how we mentally navigate our world. Our personal CPS is comprised of a unique network of influences, including physiology, education, experience, and temperament.

Constructs we learn from our milieus, such as gender roles, rules of thumb, and stereotypes, frame how we see the world. Repeated experience with them forms the mental maps with which we interpret situations and script expectations.

Your psyche is like your personal landscape. You know how to get to important places from your residence, such as the grocery store, your workplace, an organization to which you belong, and friends’ residences. You've formed an internal set of familiar routes and you’re probably annoyed if construction forces you to detour onto a road you don't know.

So, that’s our map. “Mental mapping,” our CPS, describes how we become similarly habituated to our perspective—our opinions, needs, and beliefs.

I’ve written about an aspect of the CPS before, and now I want to focus on a different one: the need for closure. The more I speak with people in official positions, the more I realize how important it is for them to understand this.

By default, the human brain prefers clarity to ambiguity, but some people want more clarity than others. This makes them inclined to accept the first thing that makes sense, just because it feels better. But I warn: Beware the narrative. Just because it sounds good does not mean it is good.

Let’s look more closely at this particular preference.

During the mid-1990s, research psychologists Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster offered a 42-item assessment scale (now revised), using a 6-point rating between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree”, for measuring the level of one’s personal need for closure (NFCS). Among the scale’s items are such statements as “I hate to change my plans at the last minute” and “I prefer interacting with people whose opinions are different from my own.”

“The consequences of the need for closure are assumed to derive from two general tendencies,” the researchers wrote, “those of urgency and permanence, respectively.” Urgency is about attaining closure now, which inspires seizing on early information. Permanence is about “freezing” or maintaining closure for as long as possible: once I’ve decided, I don’t second-guess. The future is thus clear and secure.

Five subscales organize the items into specific areas: a preference for structure, decisiveness, preference for predictability, discomfort with ambiguity, and being closed-minded.

You can see how a high need for closure (HNC) can influence making quick decisions before full consideration. Thinking tends to be superficial, producing fewer options for given scenarios, especially as situations grow more complex. HNCs also tend to anchor in early judgments and look for things to support their positions (the confirmation bias fallacy).

HNCs also prefer decisions made by people they consider their peers, in terms of perspective and characteristics, and they prefer leaders (and teachers) who lay down clear rules to follow. They prefer any truth to the lack of an answer.

Low need for closure (LNC), in contrast, is found in people who enjoy complex and elaborate thinking, and who are more willing to reexamine initial notions in light of new information. They might be attracted to art, theoretical disciplines, and philosophy. But they can take a long time to make a decision. Sometimes too long. Or never!

We know that HNCs tend to blame people for their situations and are aligned more closely with competitive than cooperative behavior. They tend to be resistant to compromise. In their minds, giving consideration to opinions they don’t share risks losing their sense of clarity. They do not adapt well to change. They also rely on categories to understand and predict others, rather than considering people as individuals, and they favor people they consider to be members of their group.

You can see how this might be detrimental when HNCs are making decisions that affect others. The need for closure can prevent decision-makers from using the full picture, and can potentially subject affected people to errors of judgment – and justice. A high need for closure can create a cognitive gap, a blind spot for personal bias.

To be sure, there are advantages to both positions, as well as disadvantages. Still, I advocate that people learn to recognize a need for closure based in fear so that they can achieve closure from efficient analysis that is genuinely fair.

In other words, know when HNC is a strength and when it is a weakness.

Some mental maps present a persistent challenge for those involved in the legal/investigative process. Education in this area should emphasize the benefits of temporarily “not knowing” and minimize the perceived cost to one’s sense of security. We all make automatic judgments from within our biases and preferences, but when those judgments impact others, we might need to try some unfamiliar routes.