science | April 30, 2013

Uncertainty Scares Us: Maria Konnikova On Overcoming our Need For Closure

"The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity," science speaker Maria Konnikova explains in an intriguing new post in The New Yorker. "From an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations." We have developed a "Need For Closure," says Konnikova. Because of our desire to quickly glean a concrete explanation of the events taking place around us, we can sometimes "produce fewer hypotheses and search less thoroughly for information." In short, our overwhelming urge to have all the answers can lead us to make errors in judgment or become resistant to alternative explanations and ways of thinking.

As the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Konnikova has done extensive research on the pitfalls of rushing into a solution to a problem. In her book, she explains how you can think like Holmes—the famed fictional detective—and increase your creativity, productivity, and expand your mental capacity. When you employ similar problem-solving strategies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth, and allow yourself time to analyze the problem from multiple angles, you often arrive at better conclusions. This can be extremely difficult for most of us to do, though. Especially, Konnikova adds, when we are in a high-stress crisis or emergency situation.

"Maintaining of cool and levelheadedness is not an easy feat, especially in the face of circumstances that urge us all toward some—any—resolution just to regain a measure of sanity in the middle of ever-increasing uncertainty," she says. However, it's not impossible to overcome this urge. In her book and her enlightening talks, she explains how to train yourself to think deeper and not rush to conclusions. We may not all be naturally inclined to think like a detective and sleuth out all possible solutions—but we can be taught. Drawing on neuroscience and psychology, she uncovers the deductive that most of us don't even know we had, andteaches us to harness them to lead more productive lives.