Flight 370 and the Need for Cognitive Closure

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The passage of time in itself is not enough to assuage the pain victims of tragedies feel. Only a sense of closure can do that, and that requires information and sensible explanations.

We humans tend to dislike ambiguity. It seems our brains are wired in a way that makes uncertainty in our lives particularly emotionally unsettling. So, when things happen that we don’t fully understand, we look for answers. Until we get the kinds of answers that make acceptable sense of things, we can’t put our minds at rest. That’s just the way it is. Mentally and emotionally, we seek what many psychologists call cognitive “closure.”

For the families of the passengers who were on board Malaysian Airlines flight 370 before it went missing, the pain associated with not knowing for sure just what happened to their loved ones is perhaps even greater than the agony of the likely loss itself. Having so much uncertainty about what transpired and what the causes were provokes no small measure of anxiety. Such anxiety also sometimes begets obsessiveness. As anyone who’s ever obsessed about anything knows, this particular kind of anxiety is very distressing. When we’re locked in the vicious cycle of worry and obsessing, there’s simply no peace. Peace only comes with resolution. Until we get some resolve, it’s hard to let go. So we seek answers. And not just any answer will put matters to rest. Some answers only raise other questions. Only answers that truly allay our uncertainties and give us a higher level of understanding will do. After all, it’s not really the answers that we yearn for anyway, it’s closure.

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According to news reports, some families of the Flight 370 passengers still wonder how government and airline officials can be so sure their loved ones perished when to date they’ve been provided with no firm evidence to support that contention. Some cling to the hope their loved ones might still be alive. Perhaps they were taken somewhere and have been held captive all this time by the entities responsible for hijacking the plane, they muse. Maybe they’re even being mistreated or tortured. Perhaps they’re even wondering if anyone is looking for them, and if not, why. Perhaps there was a tragic accident and maybe it was truly unpredictable and even unavoidable. But perhaps it was a tragedy that could have been averted and that’s why nobody’s talking. Airline and government officials have been harshly criticized for releasing so little information. It’s still not known what was in the cargo hold of the plane and if anything onboard could have caused a catastrophic failure of the plane’s navigational systems. That of course suggests the possibility that the airline and the government are keeping quiet to protect themselves against a rash of lawsuits.Then there’s the question of sabotage and the possible failure of security precautions. There are so many possibilities and still so many questions. And to date, there have been all too few answers. It’s all the “what ifs” that torment so many.

Some researchers (e.g., Kruglanski and Webster, 1994) tell us that the need for closure is higher in some people than others. Folks who have a stronger need for order and predictability in their lives, who value decisiveness, have a distaste for ambiguity, and tend to be rather closed-minded are believed to seek resolution of situations more intently. But other research also tells us that folks from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures and who have wide ranging differences in their personality characteristics still experience the same kinds of distress and need for closure when unexpected tragedies occur in their lives. (We’ve seen similar dynamics at play in the aftermath of school shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, and most recently the Korean ferry disaster.) And there’s ample evidence that the passage of time in itself is not enough to assuage the pain victims of tragedies feel. Only a sense of closure can do that, and that requires information and sensible explanations. Unfortunately, after over a month, the families of the Flight 370 passengers still have neither the information they seek or a suitable explanation for what happened, so they remain in pain.

Misinformation and conflicting information only serve to heighten the anxiety of those hoping to know the truth about their loved ones’ fate. The fact that officials in both the government and the airlines have been guilty of providing both in the past might be one of the reasons so little information has been forthcoming of late. But that won’t stop the families of Flight 370’s passengers from continuing their crusade for answers. These people are in a great deal of pain and not just because they have likely lost those they love. Rather, despite all the efforts being made to search the waters many believe will ultimately provide the answer, they’re in that state of emotional hell that comes with still not knowing anything for sure. And until these unfortunate souls have closure, they simply can’t be at peace.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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