The concept of lay epistemics concerns the process through which individuals (lay persons and scientists alike) attain their subjective knowledge. A theory of lay epistemics has been outlined in two volumes by Arie W. Kruglanski published 15 years apart, and the relevant empirical research has been presented in numerous theoretical and research articles in the scientific literature in personality and social psychology. The theory of lay epistemics describes the cognitive and motivational factors that determine the formation and alteration of human knowledge on all topics. Knowledge is defined in terms of propositions (or bodies of propositions) in which individuals have a given degree of confidence. This conception requires that the contents of knowledge be considered by the individual, implying a phase of hypothesis generation, and that they be assessed as to their validity (their warrant of confidence), implying a phase of hypothesis testing.
According to the lay epistemic theory, hypotheses are tested via relevant evidence. Relevance, in turn, is determined by preexisting inference rules that in an individual’s mind tie the evidence to the conclusion in an if-then fashion. This theory assumes that all inferences or judgments are rule based, including such automatic and unconscious judgments as involved in people’s perceptions of objects in their environment, the (erroneous) inferences they may draw from momentary mood states to their general levels of life-satisfaction and so on. By assuming the inevitability of rules in the mediation of judgments, the lay epistemic theory affords a unimodel that integrates numerous dual process models proposed in different domains of social cognition.
In principle, the individual may continue generating further and further rule-like hypotheses linking the same category of evidence to different conclusions. For instance, one might link one’s good mood at a given moment to one’s general level of happiness and success, but also consider the alternative possibility that the good mood was caused by a drink one had just imbibed, by the fact that one’s country won a soccer match, and so on. Given such a plethora of alternative possibilities, the individual may feel confused and uncertain. To attain certainty, therefore, one’s generation of alternative possibilities must come to a halt. The theory of lay epistemics identifies two categories of conditions affecting the cessation (or conversely, the initiation) of hypothesis generation: long-term capability and epistemic motivation. Long-term capability relates to the availability of constructs in memory pertinent to a given issue or question, and short-term capability relates to their momentary accessibility. Epistemic motivations are conceptualized as the cognitive state the knower wants to attain. Two issues are critical here:
- Whether the knower desires to achieve or desires to avoid the state of cognitive closure, defined as a firm judgment on a topic and contrasted with confusion and ambiguity
- Whether such desired or undesired judgment has specific (appealing or unappealing) contents (e.g., a desirable content might be that one is healthy, and an undesirable one that one is not) or is nonspecific—its desired or undesired nature stemming from its constituting a judgment (closure) or an absence of judgment (a lack of closure)
This analysis yields a typology of four motivational orientations, referred to as needs for the following:
- Specific closure
- Avoidance of specific closure
- Nonspecific closure
- Avoidance of nonspecific closure
Each motivational orientation is assumed to depend on the perceived benefits of attaining or costs of failing to attain the correspondent epistemic state (e.g., 1 through 4 in the previous list). Such costs and benefits can differ across situations (e.g., under time pressure, uncertainty may be more unpleasant than in the absence of pressure) as well as be based on stable individual characteristics. For instance, some individuals more than others may desire nonspecific closure (e.g., be intolerant of uncertainty or ambiguity), some individuals more than others may desire to avoid a specific closure (e.g., being labeled as a failure), and so forth. The epistemic motivations have been shown to exert important influence on individual judgment and decision-making processes (by initiating or halting such processes), and on such interindividual phenomena as persuasion, communication, empathy, and bargaining. The need for nonspecific closure in particular has been shown to lead to a behavioral syndrome referred to as group-centrism that includes pressures toward opinion uniformity, endorsement of autocratic leadership, ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation, the rejection of opinion deviates, and an intolerance of diversity.
Contributions of the Lay Epistemic Theory
The lay epistemic theory has contributed to the understanding of social psychological phenomena in two distinct ways:
- By generating novel testable predictions explored in empirical research
- By affording a conceptual integration of numerous, heretofore separate, topics in social cognition
Such predictions concerned individuals’ cognitive and social interaction styles, their political preferences, and their reactions to events around them (e.g., to organizational change taking place in their work place). The predictions also concerned the conditions under which the information given would affect the individuals’ judgments and those under which it would not, despite its obviousness to external observers. These issues have considerable real-world relevance relating as they do to (1) circumstances in which individuals fail to “see it coming” in military, political, or technological realms fostering immense debacles (e.g., the Pearl Harbor surprise attack, or the breakdowns of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles), (2) conditions affording or forestalling intercultural communication, and so on.
Its broad, content free nature allowed the lay epistemic theory to integrate numerous specific domains of social psychological inquiry including the synthesis of attribution with cognitive consistency theories and an integration of the plethora of dual process models under a common set of principles.
- Chaiken, S., & Trope, Y. (1999). Dual process theories in social psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
- Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum.
- Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). The psychology of closed mindedness. New York: Psychology Press.
- Kruglanski, A. W., Erb, H. P., Pierro, A., Mannetti, L., & Chun. W. Y. (2006). On parametric continuities in the world of binary either ors. Psychological Inquiry, 77(3), 153-163.
- Kruglanski, A. W., Pierro, A., Mannetti, L., & DeGrada, E. (2006). Groups as epistemic providers: Need for closure and the unfolding of group centrism. Psychological Review, 113(1), 84-100.
- Kruglanski, A. W., & Thompson, E. P. (1999). The illusory second mode, or the cue is the message. Psychological Inquiry, 10(2), 182-193.
- Kruglanski, A. W., & Thompson, E. P. (1999). Persuasion by a single route: A view from the unimodel. Psychological Inquiry, 10(2), 83-110.
- Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: “seizing” and “freezing.” Psychological Review, 103(2), 263-283.