The Psychological Need For Certainty = Goddidit

The Psychological Need For Certainty = Goddidit February 21, 2016

Psychologically speaking, humans really struggle with a lack of certainty, with ambiguity and the unknown. If you think back to your own behaviour and pasts, I am sure that you can find anecdotal evidence for this.

This is compounded by the desire for a just world, one that is fair, as illustrated by the Just World Theory. I wrote about this in relation to an incident with my partner, who is not religious (anymore) but who intuitively desired for something bad that happened, to have taken place for a good reason, thus balancing the books.

Agnosticism is something that doesn’t come easy to us. In fact, this is compounded by research that shows that people with more adamant and certain beliefs – think fundamentalist Christians and militant atheists – appear to be happier than those with more wavering beliefs. Certainty does make us happier.

The New Yorker reported, in “Why We Need Answers“:

The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity; from an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations. What’s more, we hold on to these invented explanations as having intrinsic value of their own. Once we have them, we don’t like to let them go.

In 1972, the psychologist Jerome Kagan posited that uncertainty resolution was one of the foremost determinants of our behavior. When we can’t immediately gratify our desire to know, we become highly motivated to reach a concrete explanation. That motivation, in Kagan’s conception, lies at the heart of most other common motives: achievement, affiliation, power, and the like. We want to eliminate the distress of the unknown. We want, in other words, to achieve “cognitive closure.” This term was coined by the social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, who eventually defined it as “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity,” a drive for certainty in the face of a less than certain world. When faced with heightened ambiguity and a lack of clear-cut answers, we need to know—and as quickly as possible.

As Michael Argyle writes in The Psychology of Happiness (p. 168):

The third way in which religion may affect well-being is via beliefs. Ellison (1991) found that having firm beliefs, sometimes called “existential certainty”, correlated with life satisfaction, independently of both church attendance and private devotions and their effect on well-being via their impact on beliefs. Certainty of beliefs is found to be advantageous, producing existential well-being. This may explain the popularity of “strict” churches in the USA and some other parts of the world.

It is not the content of belief, but the certainty with which it is held that leads to, or at least is correlated to, well-being. As Lousie Altman states in “Anxiety & the Quest for Certainty“:

We can blame the brain for our incessant drive for certainty. Dr. Robert Burton, former Chief of Neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion Hospital, comments, “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself. We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions.”

One reason we’re hard-wired to seek certainty (where in the real-world there is none) is due to the brain’s brilliant capacity for prediction. Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and founder of a neuroscience institute writes, “Your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now. Prediction is the primary function of the neo-cortex and the foundation of intelligence.”

With about forty environmental cues that the brain can consciously track at any given moment (and subconscious cues numbering around 2 million) the brain elegantly selects the amount of data it will use by recognizing patterns. The brain likes patterns.

Author David Rock states, “Like an addiction to anything, when the craving for certainty is met, there is a sensation of reward. The ability to predict and then obtain data that meets those predictions generates an overall towards response. Its part of the reason games like solitaire, Sudoku and crosswords puzzles are enjoyable. They give you a little rush from creating more certainty in the world in a safe way.”

So we can guess that the emotions associated with the perception of certainty – satisfaction, contentment, calmness, confidence, relief, comfort, stability and safety – are experienced as rewards to our pattern seeking brains.

By Nickbyrd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons By Nickbyrd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons So when faced with uncertainty, like the beginning
By Nickbyrd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

For unknowns, such as the beginning of the universe, or consciousness, or some such other supposed puzzle, the attraction to posit something to plug that gap is all too powerful for many people. God of the Gaps.

But, as I have written elsewhere, the probability suits naturalism as an explanation, as opposed to anything supernatural. This is summed up by Richard Carrier well:

The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

There is this “need for closure” inherent in humans that lends itself to faulty conclusions, and over simplifying problems. We see this with the Middle East, Afghanistan and terrorism in general. See Adam Curtis’s superb Bitter Lake for more on that. As The New Yorker continues:

N.F.C. is heightened under time pressure, with fatigue, with excess environmental noise—when a lot of information that is difficult to make sense of is coming at us at the same time—and when we feel that we need to give an opinion. It’s also directly related to stress. In short, its influence peaks under the circumstances of emergency or crisis.

In 2010, Kruglanski and colleagues looked specifically at the need for cognitive closure as part of the response to terrorism. In a series of five studies, they found that reminders of terrorist attacks elevate N.F.C., increasing the need “to develop strong beliefs, form clear-cut impressions, and classify objects and events into sharply defined categories in order to experience certainty and avoid ambiguity.” In the central study, American students were shown a seven-minute slide show that either discussed the 9/11 attacks or talked about the advantages of working at Google. They then completed a filler task and had their N.F.C. measured. Participants shown the 9/11 video scored significantly higher on the N.F.C. scale; in short, simply seeing the terrorist film—not even being in an actual crisis environment—was enough to trigger a heightened need to attain cognitive certainty and resolution.

Goddidit is the easy answer, and in all probability the wrong one. We have biases. Be aware, and do your best to mitigate them. And don’t plug your gaps with God because it makes you feel better. Do it because it is the best plug out there, supported by the best evidence and reasoning. If not, remain agnostic, and certainly follow the evidence.

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