The Need for Closure

Humans have a need for closure that varies from individual to individual. Some of us don’t mind too much if the internet cuts out before the last minute of a March Madness game while for others of us, the madness would multiply far beyond the basketball game. Closure helps us conceptualize, frame, and learn lessons from events in our lives. A lack of closure leaves things open and ambiguous, with unclear conclusions and conflicting lessons to be drawn.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes about the need for closure and how it can build into the epistemic vice of closed-mindedness. He writes, “The need for closure comes in two forms, non-specific and specific. The non-specific need for closure is the desire for a confident judgement on an issue as compared to confusion and ambiguity. A need for specific closure is the desire for a particular answer to a question.”
Closure can build into closed-mindedness because once we have made a judgement, we don’t want to accept new information. Once we feel that we have a specific answer, we don’t want to take on new perspectives, reconsider information in a new light, or listen to others who may disagree with us. The more certain we feel, the more we strongly we wish to hold to our conclusions. According to Cassam’s quote, the greater our need for closure, the greater the potential for us to become closed-minded in our decision-making.
“Open-minded individuals have a lower need for closure,” writes Cassam. More open-minded people are less likely to be paralyzed by a lack of information. They are more likely to accept ambiguity, make progress, and adjust when new information arises or as new perspectives are formed. In other words, they can facilitate knowledge by adjusting and adapting to new information and data. Closed-minded people obstruct knowledge by adopting a stance of certainty and ignoring new information as it becomes available.
The need for closure itself isn’t a bad thing. An open-minded person can still feel a need for closure, and that need can drive them to seek more information, to learn more, and to develop new lessons to use in future situations. It can be a motivational driving force for good. At the same time, it can push people to become recalcitrant, to adopt simple and incomplete answers, and to drive people into self-destructive behaviors seeking closure that can never be attained. Our choice (or unconscious disposition) to be closed-minded or open-minded can greatly influence whether our need for closure drives us toward virtue or vice.

Avoiding Explosive Reactions

Towards the end of George Saunders’ letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Saunders writes, “enter a new moral space in which the emphasis is on seeing with clarity, rather than judging.” He writes this as an explanation of his actions when someone is deliberately infringing upon his rights, intentionally damaging his property, or simply doing something that upsets him.  What he is explaining is that we can choose how we want to see a situation, and by adopting new perspectives we can make better decisions with how we react to other people’s actions.


Saunders in this quote reminds me of Paul Jun whose blog Motivated Mastery has been a huge inspiration for me.  Jun often writes about self awareness and self control, and being able to pause and think in situations where it is easy to become highly reactionary.  While Jun’s focus is internal, Saunders’ focus is more external. Both advocate for self awareness and self control, but Jun follows a more stoic mindset and encourages you to forget the other and not let their actions affect you, while Saunders encourages you to take action to protect yourself, but only if your actions are constructive as opposed to punishing or explosive.


What Saunders pushes for is a society that does not want people to instantly deem others as evil monsters.  His letter begins with a thought experiment that focuses on two babies born at the same time, but born to two very diffenet families. One child is born to a strong and supportive family, while the other is born into a broken home of drug addicted parents.  The child who grows up with an unsupportive family, in Saunders’ view, is not a monster,  but simply does not have the advantages and support needed to grow up in a way that society typically deems respectful and appropriate. Rather than creating more obstacles for that individual and finding excuses to judge their negative behavior, Saunders would advocate that we understand their past, and take constructive steps to prevent ourselves from being harmed by their bad decisions, but still accept who they are.  For him this involves a clear understanding of other people and their situation, and a willingness to be open minded so that we can invite these individuals into a conversation about how we can all create a better place.  Immediately judging others shutting them out of conversations to improve society by labeling them as evil monsters harms everyone in society, not just the individual who is excluded.