gestalt closure

Closure or need for closure are psychological terms that describe the desire or need individuals have for information that will allow them to conclude an issue that had previously been clouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Upon reaching this conclusion, they are now able to attain a state of ‘epistemic closure’.

The term ‘cognitive closure’ has been defined as ‘a desire for definite knowledge on some issue and the eschewal of confusion and ambiguity.’ Need for closure is a phrase used by psychologists to describe an individual’s desire for a firm solution as opposed to enduring ambiguity.

A need for cognitive closure may occur while engaged in goal-driven or goal-motivated cognitive functions (e.g., attention control, memory recall, information selection and processing, cognitive inhibition, etc.). Most people will attempt to acquire new knowledge they hope will satisfy questions regarding particular issues (specific cognitive closure) irrespective of whether that knowledge points to a conclusion having positive or negative implications for them (non-specific cognitive closure). But because urgency and permanence are central to the motivational core of this overall process, individuals (or groups) may be compelled, consciously or unconsciously, to obtain information prematurely and irrespective of content.

It is of concern then that causal and motivational mechanisms driving the process of cognitive closure may sometimes invite bias in: 1) selecting the most relevant information one should attend to for increasing chances of adaptation; 2) initiating and sustaining cognitive manipulations that are required to achieve particular outcomes; 3) making judgments and assessments of input information; and 4) weighing information during the course of decision-making.

Additionally, and especially in those with strong needs for certainty, the impulse to achieve cognitive closure may sometimes produce or evoke a mood instability, and/or truncated perceptions of one’s available behavioral choices, should some newly acquired information challenge preconceptions that they had long considered to be certain, permanent and inviolate e.g. certain religious or ethical views and values. Thus it is apparent that the need for cognitive closure may have important implications for both personal and inter-personal thoughts and actions, including some related to educational processes and school learning.

Formal education environments, such as elementary and secondary schools, present opportunities for learners to acquire new knowledge and skills, and to achieve deep, domain-specific conceptual mastery which, through well-designed pedagogical guidance and academic study, may enhance future career readiness, civic engagement, and general well-being. However, although it is understood that the basic principles of learning assert the importance of attending to students’ prior knowledge, fostering conceptual understanding, and cultivating metacognitive awareness, students must also become engaged and be willing to tolerate and cognitively work through the intellectual ambiguity often associated with exposure to novel information and tasks.

Yet for students who have high need for cognitive closure, this phenomenon may inadvertently lead to the inhibition of cognitive functions and processes essential to the learning process, so that they can maintain their prior certainty and/or perceived permanence of personally or socially important ideas, even if those ideas or knowledge are distinctly unrelated to any specific content or information being presented in the classroom. In instances such as these, an individual’s desire for cognitive closure in another area may outweigh her/his motivation to expend cognitive resources toward learning new information. As a result, the student may appear uninterested and susceptible to under-achieving e.g. poor grades or not performing to expected levels).

Unfortunately, in the absence of understanding and consideration of how need for cognitive closure may influence academic and/or achievement motivation, educators may erroneously conclude that a student does not have a desire to learn or that she/he has a cognitive, psychological, intellectual, or behavioral deficiency that is impeding the learning process. This is not to suggest that need for cognitive closure is a suitable explanation for all learning problems; however, in working with students who appear to be experiencing learning challenges manifested through amotivation or low motivation, it would not be unreasonable to explore need for cognitive closure as a potential factor.

The need for closure varies across individuals, situations, and cultures. A person with a high need for closure prefers order and predictability, is decisive and closed-minded, and is uncomfortable with ambiguity. Someone rating low on need for closure will express more ideational fluidity and creative acts. The Need for Closure Scale (NFCS) was developed by Arie Kruglanski, Donna Webster, and Adena Klem in 1993. Items on the scale include statements such as ‘I think that having clear rules and order at work is essential to success’ and ‘I do not like situations that are uncertain.’ Items such as ‘Even after I’ve made up my mind about something, I am always eager to consider a different opinion’ and ‘I like to have friends who are unpredictable’ are reverse scored.

Items on the Need for Closure Scale exhibit low to moderate statistical associations with: ‘+ for authoritarianism, + for intolerance of ambiguity, + dogmatism, – association with cognitive complexity, -impulsivity, + need for order and structure, among several other cognitive tools and personality traits. High NFC scores consistently correlate with items on the C-Scale (conservatism) as well as other measures of political and social conservatism.’

Individuals scoring high on the NFCS are more likely to attempt to draw closure by relying on incipient cues, and the first-encountered apparent fit. The need for closure is also said to predispose a very narrow or shallow information search, along with a higher tendency to use cognitive heuristics (shortcuts or rules-of-thumb), when seeking solutions. In studies on creativity, individuals with high need-for-closure ratings had low creativity scores. High scorers more frequently produced novel solutions that motivated and inspired others in their groups, and the outcomes of the projects in which they participated were rated as correspondingly more productive.

Most research on the need for closure has investigated its relation to social stimuli. However, recent research suggests that it may also predict responses to non-social stimuli. Some researchers have reached the conclusion that a desire for simple structure is what underlies (need for) cognitive closure. Others predict that stressors such as time pressure lead to a tendency to stick with a given strategy because of a heightened personal need for closure.

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