A Psychological Explanation for Why ‘Serial’ Drives Some People Crazy

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Photo: Meredith Heuer

There’s a dark cloud hanging over some fans of “Serial,” the wildly popular podcast hosted by reporter Sarah Koenig about the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee. They’re worried that this tangled tale of murder and high-school romance won’t come to any firm conclusions about who did what and whether Adnan Syed, currently serving a life sentence in prison for Lee’s murder, was wrongly accused.

This fear was perhaps stated most forthrightly by Mike Pesca on his podcast when, in his lead-in to an interview with Koenig, he said, “As I listen to ‘Serial,’ I have this thought in my head: Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth. Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth. ‘Cause for all the interesting, chin-scratching, epistemological questions raised, at its core, ‘Serial’ is a whodunnit, and host Sarah Koenig promises that when it concludes, we, the audiences, will be presented with something resembling a conclusion.” But in the subsequent interview, she didn’t — not really, at least. She said she knew with about 70 percent certainty how the podcast is going to end, structurally speaking, but she offered little reassurance that this ending would bring with it clear answers.

What’s interesting is the huge variation in how outraged people are by this possibility. Some, like Pesca, are driven crazy by the notion of the podcast not delivering some level of resolution. Others (I include myself in this camp) shrug and say, Meh, a great story’s a great story.

Surprisingly, someone’s stance on “Serial”’s ambiguity may actually tell you a lot about who he or she is as a person. It likely reflects a deep-seated, extremely important psychological characteristic called need for cognitive closure, or need for closure (NFC) for short. NFC refers to your general orientation toward uncertainty: Does it matter to you whether or not things are clear-cut? How do you handle ambiguity, whether in real life or fiction?

The higher you are in NFC, the more important it is to you that the world present itself as a somewhat clear-cut, black-and-white place, that stories resolve themselves with as few loose ends as possible. People with lower NFC can learn more and more and more about a subject without forming an opinion on it — this state of cognitive limbo doesn’t bother them — while people with higher NFC are likely to form opinions more quickly. Your friend who can open up an unfamiliar menu and figure out what he wants for dinner in five seconds? Probably high in NFC. Your other friend who is still perusing with a furrowed brow as the waiter starts taking everyone else’s orders? Probably low.

Arie Kruglanski, a leading NFC researcher and psychology professor at the University of Maryland — he helped develop a couple of the tests used to gauge the characteristic in individuals — explained that a number of factors determine an individual’s level of NFC: There appear to be a genetic components, for one thing, meaning the trait is partially hereditary, and people who grow up in secure, stable environments are likely to have lower NFC. (We’re talking in an “all things being equal sense” here — you could grow up in a war zone and end up with low NFC, or grow up in the most nurturing environment imaginable and end up with high NFC.)

But whatever your upbringing, your level of NFC as an adult isn’t necessarily permanent. “As with most psychological characteristics, it’s both a stable individual property on which people may vary, and also something that can be induced situationally,” Kruglanski said. “Some people are congenitally higher than others on this quest for certainty and closure,” but people are also susceptible to changes in their levels of NFC. The most dramatic examples are traumatic, emotionally charged events, which can increase the levels of NFC of those who are affected — when bad things happen and elicit uncertainty about the future, we tend to seek more comfort in things that seem concrete than we might at other times.

In decades of study, NFC has been correlated with all sorts of other characteristics: People high in NFC, for example “prefer figurative art versus abstract art,” as Kruglanski put it, and tend to be more politically conservative. “It’s a trait that generalizes across aesthetic, political, basically all life domains,” he said. So does that mean that within the admittedly less important domain of “Serial,” you could test someone’s level of NFC and have a pretty good guess as to how they’d react to the show’s ambiguity? “Absolutely,” said Kruglanski. “You’d expect a high degree of correlation” between high NFC and dissatisfaction with the podcast’s approach.

A lot of people who are irked by the possibility of Koenig’s story having an ambiguous ending are still listening every week, of course. Kruglanski said that the show could be having surprising effects on their behavior. “If the podcast does not provide a solution, they’d look for it another way — expressing, say, an overly bigoted opinion or a very clear-cut decision,” Kruglanski explained. This could actually extend outside the realm of podcast itself. “Even if you took them to an unrelated domain, they’d then be more decisive, more opinionated,” he said. It wouldn’t be surprising for a high-NFC individual, in other words, to follow up a “Serial” binge by expressing some strong opinions about politics, sports, or other subjects that would allow him or her to regain the sense of certainty absent in Koenig’s narrative.

Those of us curious how “Serial” will end are going to have to wait and see, of course. In the meantime, though, it’s a testament to the program’s rich storytelling that our reactions to it can tell us so much about ourselves.