People naturally want to have concrete answers to their questions and dislike uncertainty. “We work to resolve it. Our minds are consistency machines,” said Holmes, a writer and former research coordinator at Harvard University who spoke at this year’s IdeaFestival.
He argued that uncertainty can be good, if it’s embraced.
“It is a matter of courage. We are afraid to say we don’t know. We are afraid to say we don’t know to power,” Holmes said. “If you are going to be moving forward and growing, then you are going to be engaging in uncertainty.”
Although the human brain gravitates toward certainty and answers, uncertainty can open people’s minds and bolster creativity both in the arts and sciences.
Ireland native James Joyce wrote his most well-known works while living in Zurich and Paris, and more than half of the distinguished mathematicians in the United States are foreign-born or first-generation Americans. These are examples of people who have experienced multiple cultures and are more open to uncertainty because they have left the safety of the sphere they were born into, Holmes said.
That’s not to say that people have to move to write their magnum opus or become a successful mathematician. It’s about having new experiences and putting yourself in situations where you have to adapt or see a different point of view, situations in which you know you don’t know all the answers, said Holmes, author of “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.”
However, uncertainty isn’t always a good thing. Uncertainty is pleasurable when solving crossword puzzles, listening to music, visiting new places, watching sports and engaging with potential romantic partner, but it also can create anxiety when it related to jobs, money, health and romance, Holmes said.
An experiment by social psychologist Arie W. Kruglanski found that stressors can increase people’s need to resolve uncertainty with closure. If people are stressed and uncertain, it impacts who they trust and how they deal with threats. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former President George W. Bush’s approval ratings rose and fell with the terrorist threat level as people sought safety and certainty to help them feel better during the uncertain time.
Uncertainty can also lead to stereotyping and quick judgements, Holmes said. “What is a stereotype but a reduction of ambiguity.”
When uncertain, people are prone to trust the people closest to them, latch onto ideas that are closest to the ideals they are familiar with and make decisions without fully weighing the pros and cons, he said.
Reading fiction can actually be a way to reduce a person’s need for closure because it allows the reader to safely take the place of another person, Holmes said. Psychologists also have found that holding someone accountable in some way or reminding the person that his or her decision affect others can keep people from making snap judgements that come as a result of a need for certainty.
Holmes said people must work to make confusion safe and ask questions such as: How differential are we? Do we let in new ideas? Do we impose our own ideas on others?
“I think in a profound way they are deeply American questions.”