Last presidential election—in 2012—I watched the first debate with a group of intellectual Democrats. When I arrived at the viewing, I eagerly anticipated joining my friends in a thoughtful and thorough examination of each candidate’s points. But as it happened, no one in the group believed that Governor Romney’s points were worth examining. Indeed, throughout the debate, the crowd responded to each of Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s points with derisive boos and sharp-witted but utterly oversimplified counterpoints. Not surprisingly, when the debate ended, the group unanimously concluded that President Obama had triumphed.
At the end of the evening, I made a conscious decision to watch the second debate with my Republican friends. This too was an intellectual bunch, and the social psychologist in me wanted to see if my Republican friends would differ from my Democratic friends. Alas, they did not! The Republicans automatically agreed with each of Governor Romney’s points, while reserving all of their snarky and unthoughtful retorts for President Obama. Predictably, according to my Republican friends, Governor Romney won the debate.
Ironically, the debates, events that are designed to stimulate civil discourse across political lines, led to even more dogma and deafness than before! Rather than giving serious, respectful thought to the viewpoint with which they disagreed, each group dug their heels even deeper into the ground of their pre-existing political beliefs, unwilling to consider other ideas. A humble appreciation for different perspectives was conspicuously absent from each of the conversations that I witnessed.
What happened? Why is it that humans have such a difficult time being open-minded? One reason is that we have a strong aversion to ambiguity. Back in the 1950s, social psychologist Fritz Heider referred to all humans as naïve psychologists.1 Whether we are trained in psychology or not, we have a strong need to make sense of this confusing world so that we can exert control in our lives and make informed choices about the future. For this reason, we are relentlessly analyzing situations, trying to predict the behavior of others and identify answers to complex philosophical questions. And furthermore, we rather dislike anything that prevents us from achieving these goals. In other words, we hate ambiguity.
More recently, social psychologists have studied a phenomenon called need for cognitive closure, which is defined as an individual’s “need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity.”2 The idea is that we are so uncomfortable with ambiguity that if we can find a concept to help us make sense of the world, we will cling to it—even if the concept is inaccurate or incomplete. We want to quickly close the door to ambiguity because it threatens our grasp on control. So, we often settle for an answer even if it’s not the answer.
For example, our need for cognitive closure can help us understand why our political clan, when trying to make sense of a difficult, emotionally-charged and complex concept like immigration reform, might resist acceptance of diverse perspectives and instead cling to a simple bumper-sticker idea. To acknowledge that other useful perspectives might exist is to risk opening what we have already cognitively closed. Undeniably, our closed-mindedness is an effective defense mechanism.
Naturally, group situations often trigger a high need for closure. In the interest of distinguishing ourselves from other ideological groups, we cling to our beliefs and remain closed to other points of view even when it simply does not make sense to do so. For example, research has shown that people are often unwilling to receive information from non-group members, even if that information would help them to successfully solve a complex problem.3 Instead, we toil on alone, maintaining our distance from and distrust of those who belong to other groups.
I wish I could report that Christians were different than everyone else, that Christians did not succumb to their need for cognitive closure during times of threatening discourse. But anyone who pays attention to online theological debates or follows the Christian “culture wars” knows that this is not true. Closed-mindedness is an intellectual vice that plagues discourse amongst Christians and disrupts table fellowship. Not only does closed-mindedness diminish our effectiveness as Christ’s reconcilers, but it presents a distorted image of our Creator God. Theologian Hans Boersma agrees, writing, “The idea of direct and complete access to [truth] is an arrogant illusion that violates the multifaceted integrity of the created world.”4
So what are we to do? How can we fight for open-mindedness, even in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity? I believe that self-affirmation theory can help.5 We already know that when our certainty is threatened, we go on the defensive and close our minds. Well, research on self-affirmation theory has found that if we simply affirm the self, even a part of the self that is unrelated to the part that has been threatened, we are less defensive and more open to seriously engaging diverse perspectives. Social psychologists David Sherman and Heejung Kim have found that self-affirmation exercises (e.g., writing a short essay about an important value a group holds) enable group members to accept and receive constructive criticism about their group without getting overly defensive.6 And most recently, they’ve found that self-affirmation exercises reduce ideological closed-mindedness and inflexibility when two groups are discussing issues with each other.7
What if, before watching the presidential debate, my Democratic and Republican friends had written an essay that affirmed an important value, such as a belief in democracy or the intrinsic value of all human beings? What if, prior to engaging in yet another culture war, Christians took a few moments to share in a conversation that affirms an important value, such as our common need for mercy, or our collective membership in the family of God? Research suggests that these simple self-affirmations help to keep the cognitive window open when the winds of uncertainty threaten to slam it shut.
Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions in groups. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. She is the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, which earned a 2013 Leadership Journal Book Award.
1. F. Heider The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (New York: Wiley, 1958).
2. A. Kruglanski, The psychology of closed mindedness (New York: Psychology Press, 2004), 6.
3. D. Abrams, et al., “Knowing What to Think by Knowing Who You Are: Self-Categorization and the Nature of Norm Formation, Conformity and Group Polarization,” in Intergroup Relations, ed. M. Hogg & D. Abrams (New York: Psychology Press, 2001), 270-88.
4. H. Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2004), 104.
5. C.M. Steele, “The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 21, ed. L. Berkowitz (Orlando: Academic Press, 1988).
6. D. Sherman and G. Cohen, “The Psychology of Self-Defense: Self-Affirmation Theory,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 38, ed. M. P. Zanna (San Diego: Academic Press, 2006), 183-242.
7. D. Sherman and G. Cohen, “Accepting Threatening Information: Self-Affirmation and the Reduction of Defensive Biases,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 11 (2002): 119-23.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.