Got Closure? (If Not, You’ll Probably Just Make It Up)

Humans love stories. We love to tell them. We love to hear them. We crave those beginnings, middles and endings. When we hear a character driven story our brains reward us by releasing oxytocin (the happiness drug), making us empathize with those characters no matter how different they are from us. And that’s great news for writers. It inspires hope that we can foster more understanding and empathy among our fellow humans through the stories that we tell.

But it turns out that there’s a caveat. We humans love stories so much that in the same way that we see faces everywhere (in emoticons, toast, floor tiles, etc) we also create our own endings when none is given.

In 1994, Kruglanski and Donna Webster introduced a standard way to measure the need for closure, or N.F.C.: a forty-two-item scale that looked at the five separate motivational facets that comprised our underlying tendency for clarity and resolution—namely, the preference for order, predictability, and decisiveness, discomfort with ambiguity, and closed-mindedness. Taken together, these elements tell us how high our need for closure is at any given point. Heightened need for cognitive closure can bias our choices, change our preferences, and influence our mood. In our rush for definition, we tend to produce fewer hypotheses and search less thoroughly for information. We become more likely to form judgments based on early cues (something known as impressional primacy), and as a result become more prone to anchoring and correspondence biases (using first impressions as anchors for our decisions and not accounting enough for situational variables). And, perversely, we may not even realize how much we are biasing our own judgments. (Maria Konnikova from The New Yorker article “Why We Need Answers”)

Which brings me to communication. I’m a communicator. I enjoy finding out what people think and why they think it. But I’ve noticed that in switching from face-to-face conversations to text/email/Facebook something is getting lost. Because while it’s easier than ever to throw out quippy one-liners—offering just enough time to read and then edit them before sending—we miss out on the flair of a sarcastic tone or disbelieving facial expression. We lose context and depth.

We gain something too. But that might not be a good thing. Our need for closure encourages us to use our imaginations to fill in the narrative gaps that go unanswered or  only partially answered. And while I generally believe imagination to be a beautiful thing, I know that if my own is anything to go by, we’re most likely to insert our desires or insecurities into this kind of narrative. And that’s probably not reflective of reality.

It reminds me of this hilarious Key & Peele sketch on different ways we can (mis)read texts. They’re talking about friends—who are more likely to “see” and “hear” each other’s nuances through years of face-to-face interactions— miscommunicating. How much is it happening when talking to someone we don’t have that history with? When we’re newly dating? When we feel vulnerable? When the bulk of our conversations take place without that learned knowledge?

One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. (“Quantum Theory Demonstrated: Observation Affects Reality”)

When we text we observe ourselves and the other person communicating. We are not just reading and typing, we are analyzing the silences, the ellipses that tell us the other person is typing, erasing, or maybe just distracted. We attempt to understand what that emoji means. Was it a happy thumbs up or an obnoxious one? Was that a smile or a grimace? What the hell is a smiling poop emoji for anyway? And when we ask multiple questions but the other person only answers one of them, we are naturally inclined to fill in those plot holes with story lines of our own imagining, for better or worse.

Even when we think they probably didn’t write back because they were busy and not because they secretly hate us, we subconsciously experience an emotional response. And if we felt slighted emotionally, even without believing it intellectually, it will still leave a resonance. And it may color our next communication with them. It can work on the positive side as well, of course . But whichever way it goes, especially if we’re not getting regular IRL validation, we are probably experiencing a bias that we aren’t even aware of having. One we may think we’ve already addressed by not taking texts too seriously. But as we rely more and more on this vague form of communication, we owe it to ourselves to learn to be as objective as possible.

We like to think we’ve got it all figured out. That we are in control. That we know how not to take ourselves or others too seriously. But we are all addicts. We are addicted to story. And when we meet a new character, hear a compelling beginning, feel that tension of rising action, we can’t help ourselves. We want to get that hit of satisfaction. Humans fill in the blanks. We want a happy _______.



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