Cognitive Closure and the Road to Damascus

Herman, distracted by his cell phone, ended up entering the freeway on an exit ramp and traveling the wrong way down a crowded Interstate.  A quick glance at his GPS suggested to Herman that he was on the Interstate, just as he’d intended, so he kept driving as cars swerved around him at seventy miles per hour.  A news helicopter quickly noticed what was happening and began covering the story.  Herman’s cell phone rang, so he answered, and his wife’s voice said, “Herman, I just heard on the radio that some fool is driving the wrong way on the Interstate.  Keep a lookout for him and be careful!”  To which Herman replied, “It’s worse than the radio says.  There’s not one car going the wrong way; there are hundreds of them!”[i]

We are loathe to admit when we are wrong.  And that’s not just because we are superficially stubborn.  Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has pioneered work on what he calls “cognitive closure,” which is that moment when a person makes a firm decision, closing the mental filters to any new information that might change one’s mind.[ii]  It’s easy to see why a degree of such closure is necessary.  If someone lacks all cognitive closure, then ambiguity becomes the norm and important life decisions are never made.  Such a person waffles through the world, with events buffeting him back and forth.  But a high need for closure can be even more dangerous, shutting down one’s discernment too soon, settling for what seems preserving and safe for oneself, but blinding oneself to more far-reaching consequences.

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Especially in times of high anxiety and stress, Dr. Kruglanski says, everyone’s need for closure increases.  When things seem uncertain, our we crave certainty.  In an ambiguous and frightening world, we want simple and clear solutions we believe will preserve us.   Cognitive closure has two stages, according to Dr. Kruglanski: seizing and freezing.  “In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly: we ‘seize’ whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible: we ‘freeze’ our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it…And once we’ve frozen? Our confidence increases apace.”[iii]

This can quickly devolve into destructiveness.  In our individual lives, we may cocoon from the world, cutting off complex but important and life-giving relationships and avenues for living in favor of the simplest tasks we can manage, and which grant us a feeling of control.  In the world writ large, we may give our allegiance to leaders who make simplistic but certain promises, who paint the world in terms of black and white, who present a crisp and compelling narrative of us against them.  So long as we are among the “us” and not among the “them,” the leader’s message is a relief from our anxiety, and we accept his or her worldview, closing ourselves off to any other perspectives.  (It is worth noting that for Dr. Kruglanski this is not only an academic study.  He was born in Poland in 1939 and grew up in a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis.)

Cognitive closure is powerful.  It leads otherwise rational people to believe things patently contrary to evidence.  It leads people to say and do things—or acquiesce to things—that in a different time or circumstance they themselves would find abhorrent.  Traveling north on the southbound freeway, cognitive closure can convince us that all the other cars are driving in the wrong direction.

Cognitive closure is also a compelling way to diagnose Paul, who would become the apostle.  In first century Judea, in which the occupying Roman army was a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty, and in which the nascent but growing Jesus movement was an easy target, Paul became a leading voice identifying Christians as the problem, as the embodiment of all that was wrong in society.  (Acts 7 and 8 chronicle second-hand Paul’s vicious and violent persecution of Christians.  Looking back in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, Paul admits it himself.[iv])  In the face of anxiety and stress, Paul identifies the first Christians as the problem and himself as part of the solution, blocking out any other evidence, closing his filters to any other explanation.  Dr. Kruglanski says, “That’s what makes certainty so dangerous: When you dismiss other points of view; when you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment.”  Paul—a highly educated and faithful man—refuses to see those who do not share his vision of reality as being worthy of consideration, and he becomes zealously cruel in his approach to them.

But then we arrive at Acts 9.  There, Paul is literally knocked off his horse and onto the ground.  A thunderous, white light blinds him, both literally and figuratively.  The vision he has obstinately set before himself and claimed as true vanishes in the white light of God.  The voice of Jesus speaks aloud to Paul.  “You are not righteous, as you believe yourself to be,” Jesus says to Paul, “In your demonizing words and actions; in the pain you cause and abet; in your zeal and certainty, you are persecuting me.”  Paul’s cognitive closure has led him down a path on which he is persecuting the Lord of grace and love.  Nothing short of an intervention of grace and love by that same Lord can stop Paul in his tracks, fell the scales from his eyes, and open his mind anew to God’s reality that runs deeper than our anxieties.

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The Road to Damascus, by Rubens

Cracking open our cognitive closure requires such a jolt, and that is what Jesus intends to do in and for us just as much as in Paul.  I worry so about the world today.  I worry for us individually and our tendency to close ourselves to relationships that check and challenge.  I worry for us corporately and the ways we increasingly consider others as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, as paper tigers we can demonize and against whom we rail.  Arie Kruglanski speaks the truth when he says, “We should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness.  The alternative is the abyss.”

The words of Jesus ring out for me—to me, and to us all: If ever we demonize in words or actions, in the pain we cause and abet, in our zeal and certainty, we persecute the Lord of grace and love.

Paul hears and heeds the words of Jesus, and he is given new life and a new purpose.  It’s a harder life, trading circled wagons and a lashing anger for vulnerability and a willingness to speak grace and love even when those to whom he speaks do him injury.  But it is a truer life, one centered in God, and a life on whom the survival of the world ultimately depends.

This day—this very day—can be our road to Damascus.  We can be knocked to the ground, our closed minds jarred open, the white light of the God of love scattering all other images from our vision and replacing them with a vision of discipleship in which we become apostles, those whose whole lives are given not to self-righteousness or certainty but to Jesus and his love.  That is Good News.  Thanks be to God.

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[i] From the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/opinion/the-price-of-certainty.html?login=email&auth=login-email

[iii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/why-we-need-answers

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6.