The poet John Keats coined the term negative capability to refer to the ability to remain content with half-knowledge “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The opposite of negative capability is known by psychologists as the need for closure (NFC). NFC refers to an aversion toward ambiguity and uncertainty, and the desire for a firm answer to a question. When NFC becomes overwhelming, any answer, even a wrong one, is preferable to remaining in a state of confusion and doubt.
If we could represent the knowledge in any given brain as dry land, and ignorance as water, then even Einstein’s brain would contain just a few tiny islands scattered around in a vast ocean of ignorance. Yet most of us find it hard to admit how little we really know. How often, in the course of our everyday conversations, do we make assertions for which we have no evidence, or cite statistics that are really nothing but guesses? Behind all these apparently innocuous confabulations lies NFC.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to know the answer to a question, or feeling disturbed by the extent of our ignorance. It is not the reaching after fact and reason that Keats condemns, but the irritable reaching after fact and reason. However great our desire for an answer may be, we must make sure that our desire for truth is even greater, with the result that we prefer to remain in a state of uncertainty rather than filling in the gaps in our knowledge with something we have made up.
Greater awareness of the dangers of NFC would lead to more people saying, “I don’t know” much more often. In fact, everyday conversation would overflow with admissions of ignorance. This would represent a huge leap forward towards the goal of greater rationality in everyday life.