Why Confusion May Be Good for You

Depending on how open we are to a little confusion, it can spur the mind to understand a difficult concept. Who is Danny/Shutterstock
Illustration of woman showing signs of confusion.
Depending on how open we are to a little confusion, it can spur the mind to understand a difficult concept. ImageFlow/Shutterstock

The headline for this article may leave you a little, well, confused.

After all, we've long associated the mental stutter that occurs when we don't understand something to be a shortcoming, a glitch in our central processing unit. Or worse, confusion could mark serious cognitive decline, perhaps even a disease-related impairment.

You're probably OK. In fact, according to a new study, it isn't so much about being confused, but how we respond to that feeling that matters.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests some people make confusion work for them — prompting them to learn more about something they don't initially understand.

Others, on the other hand, react to confusion by turning away from the subject completely.

It all comes down to how people respond to feelings of uncertainty and bewilderment, the research suggests.

"We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion," explains lead author Sidney D'Mello of the University of Notre Dame in a press release.

So, for example, if you found the headline to this story confusing, you may already be long gone, having moved on to more of a sure thing.

Like perhaps, the funny and adorable things that animals do.

But if you're still here, you may be one of those people who leverages confusion in order to learn something new.

Reacting to confusion

confused man
What's your response when faced with befuddlement?. Peshkova/Shutterstock

To test their theory, University of Notre Dame researchers invited test subjects to learning sessions that involved a complex idea. Then they intentionally ratcheted up the confusion — and monitored participants' reactions.

Or, in the appropriately bewildering language of the study, "Confusion was experimentally induced via a contradictory-information manipulation involving the animated agents expressing incorrect and/or contradictory opinions and asking the (human) learners to decide which opinion had more scientific merit."

Got that? Yeah, same here.

It's the kind of language that separates confused people into two groups: the learn-more-about-it kind and the not-today-thanks kind.

To make matters murkier, the scientists ensured there was a fundamental contradiction in each of the scientific models discussed in case studies.

At the end of each discussion, participants were tested on their understanding of the subject. Interestingly, people who had reported higher rates of confusion were also better able to grasp the subject — and identify the scientific contradictions.

Essentially, they had a positive reaction to confusion, using it as a motivation to wrap their heads around a subject. For them, confusion was a preface to learning something new.

They demonstrated what behavioral scientist Nick Hobson describes as a high degree of openness.

"Openness is associated with the experience of immersion, absorption and wonderment," he writes in The Behaviorist. "Individuals higher in openness are fascinated by complex situations and tend to have more nuanced experiences. It is characterized by a greater tolerance of ambiguity."

There is, however, an important caveat. D'Mello cautions against deliberately sowing confusion in the context of learning. People already struggling to understand a concept — especially one that they're under pressure to understand — may not benefit from the added confusion.

Instead, confusion may work best for people who are actually looking for a challenge and don't face consequences for taking a chance to learn something new.

Those would be the intellectual risk-takers who are spurred on, rather than dissuaded by feelings of confusion. And perhaps even those who find themselves right here at this very moment. Congratulations on following up on your initial confusion.