New America Foundation Future Tense fellow Holmes, a former research coordinator in the department of economics at Harvard, debuts with a provocative analysis of the roots of uncertainty.
The need for closure is a mainstay of American life—and not only after mass shootings or other tragic events. Confronted by ambiguity in our personal or professional lives, we seek answers. In the face of perceived threats, we demand absolutes. “In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world,” writes the author, “what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.” In this well-written book based on the latest findings in social psychology and cognitive science, Holmes explains that we are all naturally ambivalent. When we are confused, our minds either snap shut (relying on preconceptions) or unlock (allowing us to innovate). Offering innumerable examples, the author describes instances in which we try to avoid uncertainty and have a dangerously high need for closure—a critical negotiation, inconclusive medical results, or a changing business environment—and others in which we try to maximize the benefits of harnessing ambiguity, whether to help students solve problems with no clear answers or to discover new ways to cope with failure and success. Holmes shows how people and organizations have dealt with ambiguity, from the FBI’s 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, to the fashion industry, where manufacturers and retailers tried to meet the perplexing uncertainty over changing skirt hemlines in the 1970s. Most telling are the author’s discussions of hostage negotiations, which demand the patient skills of professionals with a low need for certainty in confusing situations. Ambiguity can make medical problems more agonizing, make the pleasure of mystery novels more enjoyable, and lead to devastating prejudices in our social lives.
The author’s bright anecdotes and wide-ranging research stories are certain to please many readers.