About Jamie Holmes
Jamie Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former Research Coordinator at Harvard University in the Department of Economics. He holds an M.I.A. from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Daily Beast.
- Jamie Holmes,“How Methods Videos Are Making Science Smarter,” The New Yorker, August 28, 2015.
- Jamie Holmes, “The Case for Teaching Ignorance,” The New York Times, August 24, 2015.
- Jamie Holmes,“I’ve Got My Eye on You,” Slate, December 14, 2011.
- Jamie Holmes, “How to Learn Self-Control,” Review of Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s “Willpower” in The Daily Beast, August 28, 2011.
- Jamie Holmes, “Why Texting Is the Most Important Information Service in the World,” The Atlantic, August 2, 2011.
- Jamie Holmes, “Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?”The New Republic, June 6, 2011.
- Jamie Holmes, “Identification, Please,” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2011.
- Jamie Holmes, “Trust Your Irrationality,”Review of Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality” in The Daily Beast, July 31, 2010.
- Jamie Holmes, “President Obama and Remembering Chekhov,” The Huffington Post, January 28, 2010.
- Jamie Holmes, “‘Postracial’ America, One Year Later,”The Huffington Post, November 5, 2009.
A Conversation with Jamie
Question: What is it about the concept of ambiguity that first drew your attention?
Jamie Holmes: I was exploring psychologist Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower, which is focused on how mental conflicts affect people. And I grew interested, more broadly, in what psychological science tells us about how the mind deals with unclear experiences, with moments that challenge our expectations. I’ve always been fascinated by the ambiguities embedded in odd or foreign experiences, maybe because I lived abroad when I was a child. So I was excited to discover the burgeoning research on how we deal with ambiguity.
Q: Which of the many topics and daily tasks affected by ambiguity – that you write about in NONSENSE –were you most surprised to learn about?
JH: I was surprised to learn about the dynamics of invention, and in particular, the work done by the psychologist Tony McCaffrey. McCaffrey showed that when we’re thinking about solving a problem, we embed false certainties in the unconscious assumptions we make about how the parts of any object are supposed to function, or how we frame our goal. He has shown that there are hidden ambiguities that we have to work to uncover. So, say you’re trying to build a safer football helmet to reduce concussions, and your goal is to “absorb impacts.” That would get you looking for materials that would soften blows. You’d look for a better cushion. But by framing your goal using the word “absorb” you’ve actually steered yourself away from a possible solution. If instead you focused on the word “repel,” it might occur to you to magnetize football helmets with the same pole, which could reduce the force of helmet-to-helmet contact considerably. That’s a concept currently in development. So the idea is that the range of possible solutions to any problem is almost always broader and more ambiguous than we imagine.
Q: Can you give an example of the ways that ambiguity affects our day-to-day life?
JH: One very common experience during which we have to deal with ambiguity is when we’re considering whether we’re wrong—when we’re stuck in that uncomfortable middle ground between thinking we’re right and sensing we might not be. The problem is that when our preference for definite answers is elevated—whether because of our natural inclination or because we’re under pressure—we’re more likely to stick to what we already believe, even and especially in the face of counterevidence. It’s known as the permanence tendency. Stress actually makes us less receptive to new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and even new cultures. And that’s not something that people are generally aware of. So the next time you’ve had a bad day because your toddler has been screaming or your boss was angry, know that in deciding something you have to consciously counteract those pressures, which are making you less mentally flexible and might be damaging your relationships at work and at home.
Q: What is the Need-For-Closure scale, and how do you rank? Has your comfort level changed over the course of writing NONSENSE?
JH: The need-for-closure scale was developed by the social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, and it provides a measure of our preference for definite answers over ambiguity. You can take a short version of the test here. I ranked smack-dab in the middle. For me, how well I deal with ambiguity is really dependent on the mood I happen to be in, but certainly since writing the book I’ve gotten better at dealing with unclear information and with not knowing things. I’m able to remind myself not to worry about things that I can’t know, or to wait for clearer indications before I act in cases where there are mixed signals. I also think I’ve gotten a bit better at changing my mind than I used to be.
Q: What was your favorite part about writing NONSENSE?
JH: Easily the most exiting aspect was exploring the various research threads on ambiguity and interviewing the researchers. The psychologists in the book are among the top minds in the field, they’ve dedicated their lives to understanding the psychology of human behavior, and they were extraordinarily generous with their time. Having their guidance was inspiring and humbling.
Q: Besides NONSENSE, what kind of books do you like to read?
JH: Stacked on my nightstand right now are: Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Annals of the Former World by John McPhee, Alan Burdick’s Out of Eden, Bill Bryson’s One Summer, and a collection of short stories called You’ve Got to Read This.
Q: You wake up tomorrow and you’re 6 years old all over again. What’s your dream job?
JH: I’ve always been interested in politics, and admiring of those who subject themselves to that process in order to fight for what they believe in. I’m not sure I could stomach it myself. For the last fifteen years, to be honest, I’ve been looking to find a way to write and research full time, so I’m hoping I can keep writing! When I was actually 6, growing up in Chicago, I think I wanted to be Walter Payton, who football fans remember as one the greatest running backs of all time.