pop culture, spirituality, vocation

The Temptation for Cognitive Closure (+Portland pics!)

In December 1994 edition of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, psychologists Dr. Donna Webster and Dr. Arie Kruglanski wrote a paper called Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure that changed my perspective on my love life.

Let’s pause for a moment. We all know I’m a giant nerd, but did I really dig through decades of psychology research for fun one Saturday afternoon and stumble upon this thing? Though that’s within the realm of possibility, it’s not accurate. Let’s go retrace some key events here.

My college roommate Katie and I travel well together. I had visited her during her consultant days in Chile, so at the beginning of summer when I was itching to take a semi-major trip, I knew I had to ask Katie. She lives in Chicago at the moment, and we don’t get to see each other as much as I’d like. Katie was game (no surprise) and could swing taking PTO (major surprise), and we settled on Portland, Oregon.  Neither of us had ever been, though she was familiar at the airport from doing business in nearby Beaverton.

Mid-August, we flew out to Portland and had a fantastic trip filled with amazing food, strong coffee, adventures, re-connecting with one another, and even seeing 99.4% of the Great American Eclipse! It was so, so, so, so good for my soul.

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For me, one of my favorite aspects of the trip was I actually had time to read for PLEASURE! (Yes, nerd alert, I’m about to spend 2 paragraphs on books. And then, I promise, I’ll get to my long-winded explanation of why two psychologists have changed my outlook on my dismal love life.) After long days, we both needed a little down time. Katie watched House of Cards. I turned to my books.

I previously enjoyed the light but captivating thriller Hostage Taker, which I had already taken out from the library for the trip, but I devoured it. I knew I wanted a thriller, but I love non-fiction, so I decided to finally read the book that inspired my real albeit nerdy favorite movie.  I had picked up All The President’s Men from the library and gotten a hundred or so pages in, but I forced myself to leave it because I managed to pack for a 5-day trip in a 35L backpack and always overpack on books. Well, I couldn’t resist more reading and picked up my own copy at Powell’s Books. It covers reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unraveling the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration.

Too, I was able to read through and reflect on most of my beloved Henri Nouwen’s Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, which had such providential timing. I put a hold on it before learning that my friends’ baby Colby has a prognosis of 2 years to live. I just knew I was getting a bit burnt out in my caring. It was so good for me to reflect on the Christian meaning of death on the journey to Portland and back.

But between these two books and my new podcast obsession Up and Vanished (which I discussed with my lovely plane-mates on the way to Portland), by the time Katie and I hit Seattle before our 3-hour layover before our individual 3-hour plan rides to Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively, I was out of books and even crossword puzzles.

I had read Charles Duhigg’s debut novel The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business while I was adjusting to life in Milwaukee after travel nursing. I found it extremely validating of my newfound goal to budget more carefully and my craving for routine. Perusing airport shops on the way out to Portland (because even though my friend teased me I was one of those people who likes to be a million hours early and just sit there and then even delaying my departure 1 hour, I still had 1.5 hours to kill before my first flight even boarded after I leisurely got through security and got my coffee from my favorite local coffee roaster), I saw he had another book about productivity.

Well, when we found a bookstore in the Seattle airport, all I could think of reading was Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real ProductivityDespite everyone saying they think I’m one of the most busy and productive people they know, parts of my life feel very unproductive. If I can change that, I’d like to!

What I appreciate about Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better is how he also highlights the pitfalls of an excessive productivity just as he discusses the pitfalls of being too engrossed in habits that they become addictions in The Power of Habit.

Thus, as Duhigg is discussing an eagle-like focus on goals, he notes the work of psychologists Dr. Donna Webster and Dr. Arie Kruglanski who developed the Need for Cognitive Closure Scale and can reliably and validly identify decisive people. Not surprisingly, I score high on this test. An online version can be found here.

But this is what was:

“…there are risks associated with a high need for closure. When people begin craving the emotional satisfaction that comes from making the decision – when they require a sensation of being productive and orders to stay calm – they are more likely to make hasty decisions and less likely to reconsider an unwise choice…. when people rush toward decisions simply because it makes them feel like they are getting something done, missteps are more likely to occur.

Research describes the need for closure as having multiple components. There is the need to “seize” a goal, as well as separate urge to “freeze” on an objective once it has been selected. Decisive people have an instinct to seize on a choice when it meets a minimum threshold of acceptability. This is a useful impulse, because it helps us commit to projects rather than endlessly debating questions or second-guessing ourselves into a state of paralysis…However, if our urge foreclosure is too strong we freeze on our goals in order to grab that feeling of productivity at the expense of common sense…When we’re overly focused and feeling productive, we become blind to details that should give us pause.

It feels good to achieve closure. Sometimes, though we become unwilling to sacrifice that sensation even when it’s clear we’re making a mistake.”

– Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

This guy just described my love life. Perfectly. In detail. 

  • “…if our urge for closure is too strong we freeze on our goals in order to grab that feeling of productivity at the expense of common sense.” – me with post college boyfriend I was convinced I was going to marry and took over 2 years to get over mostly because I refused to get over him because I was “stuck” on him as the guy I wanted to marry. (And thank the Good Lord that did not happen!)
  • “When we’re overly focused and feeling productive, we become blind to details that should give us pause.” – me with college boyfriend. Major blindness to important details there.
  • “Decisive people have an instinct to seize on a choice when it meets a minimum threshold of acceptability.” – me with every guy ever. I decided be “all in” for my post college boyfriend the minute he texted me that he prefers dogs over cats (which is ironic, because he now has a cat.) I refused to go on a date with someone because he could not pin down a place nor time to meet. My current crush started when a guy put down a kneeler for me at Mass. Really, these are the moments that decide it for me. I’m super romantic, if you cannot tell (and sarcastic, if you cannot detect the sarcasm).
  • “When people begin craving the emotional satisfaction that comes from making the decision – when they require a sensation of being productive and orders to stay calm – they are more likely to make hasty decisions and less likely to reconsider an unwise choice.” – me with my current struggle to be single

This. Is. Me.

I’m decisive. I’m loyal. I make decisions and run with them. And for the most part, that’s a great thing! As Duhigg writes, “The need for cognitive closure, in many settings, can be a great strength. People who have a strong urge for closure are more likely to be self-disciplined and are seen as leaders by their peers.”

But I know being decisive has come with its own unique set of burdens, and they’ve been coming up continuously as I wrap my head around my unfulfilled goal and dream of being a wife and mother.

I recently have been really delving into the storm story in Matthew’s Gospel, and I’ve found that in my own personal storm of finding purpose in my period of singleness one of the hardest things to deal with is the uncertainty. The storm started in evening, and Jesus came during the 4th watch of night, between 3am and 6am. I’m sure the disciples cried out for him between those hours, but He didn’t come until the 4th watch.

I’m afraid to keep praying, keep calling out to God with my aches, frustrations, and fears, because I don’t know when He’s going to show up. So, I’m sitting in this boat, in this storm, hanging onto whatever I can for dear life, and I hate every minute of it because I’m not moving towards anything and I’m not feeling productive. So, since this is all interior and I can do things, then I do this: “when people rush toward decisions simply because it makes them feel like they are getting something done, missteps are more likely to occur.”

I make a giant fool of myself. I don’t develop healthy friendships with male friends. I disproportionately desire a relationship and simultaneously sabotage it by not getting to know the other person adequately. I rush toward decisions simply because it feels like I am getting something done.

I never realized I was fighting such a battle against cognitive closure. It always felt like there was this thing I struggled with, but I could never name it. Now I have a name for it.

When I freaking out from getting a wedding invitation and wondering if I should use my plus one because something might happen in the next couple months, I’m fighting against the temptation for cognitive closure.

When everyone else seems so put together while I use the same Correlle plates I’ve had since starting college and I want to buy a whole new “adult” set, I’m fighting against the temptation for cognitive closure. 

When my co-workers are reaching big milestones while I have no idea what mine will be, I’m fighting against the temptation for cognitive closure. 

When someone asks me what kind of nurse practitioner I want to be and I don’t have an answer, I’m fighting against the temptation for cognitive closure. 

When I’m sitting in that boat, the storm is raging, I’m calling for Jesus, and I’m sure not if He’s coming to save the day yet, I’m fighting against the temptation for cognitive closure. 

The thing is, choosing to stay where I am is a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like a productive one. Trying to move through a storm too fast is more dangerous than bobbing in the waves. Trying to rush into a relationship too fast is more detrimental than taking one’s time. Trying to rush one’s career is harmful than learning the necessary skills.

At times in our lives, it’s better to sit and wait in patient expectation than to rush toward decisions simply because it makes us feel good. Thank you, Charles Duhigg and Drs. Donna Webster and Arie Kruglanski for helping me discover the name of the temptation I’ve been fighting.

Some favorites from Portland

  • Multnomah Falls – we took a bus from Portland that cost $5 round trip. The hike to the top didn’t offer the best view, but we loved hiking around and finding other waterfalls.
  • Toro Bravo – such good tapas!
  • Powell’s Books – it was so large and amazing.
  • Courier Coffee – my favorite of all the excellent coffee options in town.
  • Irving St. Kitchen – came back it was so good!
  • Pok Pok – fantastic authentic Thai
  • Urban Crush – wine tasting with generous pours.
  • Cider Bite – ciders and games. What’s not to love?

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