maize 13545970.0001.001 in

    5. Fostering Clarity to Achieve Reasonableness


    Humans as a species have a need for information. The clarity mechanism provides the underlying motivations for people to seek knowledge without getting overwhelmed and to even enjoy the process of learning and gaining competence. This cognitive mechanism is fundamental to people’s daily lives, and for most waking hours it is influencing our thoughts and behavior. Therefore, it is not surprising that this mechanism has some sway over whether and when people are reasonable. The clarity mechanism is fundamental to model building, as that is where its evolutionary roots lie. But it also plays a role in when people are likely to undermine their own effectiveness for short-term cognitive gains. And the clarity mechanism can be integral in finding meaning in action. Understanding the clarity mechanism provides insight into all three domains of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) and can help to bring out the best in people.

    The Clarity Mechanism and Its Evolutionary Roots

    While other species might be particularly fierce, fast, or fortified, our human strong suit seems to center around information—that is, gathering it, organizing it, and ultimately using it. Humans seem to be smarter and more flexible than other species. We have migrated to and can survive in a wide variety of environments, from Antarctica to the Gobi Desert, from nuclear submarines to space stations. Human brains are bigger in relation to body size than any other species (Roth & Dicke, 2005). And of all species, humans spend the greatest proportion of their lives in childhood, the phase of life focused on acquiring knowledge so as to be largely self-sufficient (Bogin, 1997).

    Humans have many motivations, and these motivations often reflect our various needs. The need for protection from the elements motivates us to seek physical shelter and comfort. The imperative to stay nourished motivates us to eat and store food.

    In addition to these physical needs, we also have needs related to our relationship with information. We secure our future by understanding our environment, by expanding our own capabilities, by appreciating the motivations and intentions of others, and by knowing our own limitations and capabilities. We build internal models of the physical environment, our social environment, and our own selves, and we use these models to make educated guesses about potential futures, choose among paths, and prepare for surmised outcomes.

    Pushing and Pulling

    Because we have multiple needs, no single need can dominate at all times, and we must somehow negotiate these competing interests. We have drives that push and pull us to varying degrees in multiple directions. A person who has not eaten for a while is likely to develop an appetite and then possibly a hankering for food, and if left unfulfilled, ultimately such a person will be ravenous. So we can be pushed to differing degrees to seek food. Softer nudges are easy to ignore, stronger pushes less so.

    In addition to being pushed toward seeking food, we can be pulled toward food. If we happen upon a fruit tree or the aroma of cooking food, we can be pulled toward it, even when not particularly hungry.

    But we can get too much of a good thing, and food is no exception. If people eat too much, they can experience pained stomachs and even nausea.

    And so we find a simple pattern, the push to stop what we’re doing to seek food, the pull toward food we’ve found or detected, and the push away from food when we’ve eaten too much. The pushes we experience as pain or discomfort, the pulls as pleasure. Many other needs work in this same manner, specifically the need for knowledge. And because these needs share the common currency of pain and pleasure, they can be evaluated against one another. If we are hungry enough, we’ll venture into the frigid cold to seek food.

    The Need for Knowledge

    Because humans are a species dependent on information for survival, the human need for knowledge, like the need for nourishment, has a set of pushes and pulls. To learn, we need new experiences. We need to be exposed to new environments; we need to try new things and test ourselves physically and mentally. We need to seek challenges, dare to make mistakes, and bounce back when we fail. However, the world is a dangerous place. For our prehistoric ancestors, it was a world in which one might encounter predators or enemies but no emergency rooms. Even today we may come up against challenges we’re not ready for. What are the pushes and pulls in the realm of knowledge seeking?


    The first push—the drive to seek new experiences, face new challenges, and gain new knowledge—is boredom.[1] Boredom is an aversive state in which people experience cognitive discomfort if not pain. Boredom results from experiencing the same humdrum thing for the umpteenth time. We see boredom in the kid sprawled in the aisle of the clothing store, in teens counting the days until they can leave their small town, in students for whom the teacher’s lecture is crawling along too slowly, and in parents reading that same bedtime story yet again.

    Editors’ Comment: Avoiding boredom drives the development of expertise (S. Kaplan, Chapter 3). This can present a communication challenge in that what is boring or obvious to an expert may be confusing to the novice.

    We see boredom in the faces of those doing highly repetitive work that has no challenge and requires no creativity. Guards who must remain vigilant for extended periods of time confront boredom. And for many people forced to attend meetings where little information is relevant, boredom is a common outcome.

    People are known to do many things to escape boredom, even activities that can be dangerous. Teens are particularly susceptible to escaping boredom in this way, to the dismay and lost sleep of their parents. Dangerous or not, boredom drives us to seek new experiences, thereby creating the conditions for expanding our knowledge.


    The second push counteracts the first by keeping us from getting overwhelmed. Because the world has many dangers and because we do not want to get in over our heads, this push endeavors to keep us out of situations in which we’re not sufficiently competent. This push is the feeling of confusion. It is uncomfortable, if not painful, and we want to retreat when faced with it.[2]

    Just as the classroom is a place where some face boredom, there are others who experience confusion. The discomfort they feel can become associated with the topic and sometimes even school and education in general. If a book is found to be confusing, it may never be finished; if a website is confusing, the person will likely browse elsewhere. And a person facing a medical diagnosis—with new terms and concepts, multiple treatment options, and unclear outcomes—can easily become overwhelmed.


    There are two types of cognitive pain—boredom and confusion. Fortunately, there is also a source of pleasure in the mix that pulls us toward exploration and understanding. This pull is not so much a single state as a spectrum of conditions through which we experience varying degrees of pleasure, from mild comfort to intense joy. There are a variety of common terms that describe this range of experiences—interest, fascination, mystery, intrigue, the thrill of discovery. The umbrella term, “clarity,” refers to the entire constellation of experiences.[3]

    Let’s explore the dimensionality of clarity by focusing on three points on the continuum. At the modest end we have the case when we are simply clear as opposed to confused. Knowing a place like the back of our hand is comfortable, especially when compared with the feeling of being lost. But simply being clear is often not especially pleasurable, perhaps even not that far from finding the place rather boring. So, it is vitally important not to conflate being clear with all of clarity, as it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    There is an intermediate region of clarity where the pleasure is apparent. This occurs in a mixed state, where we are clear enough to feel anchored but there is also some uncertainty. This state is particularly salient for learning, as we’re on the verge of building on and extending our existing models. All it will take is some time and effort devoted to exploration and problem solving. The adaptive nature of clarity recognizes the conditions of a likely knowledge payoff and employs pleasure to sustain us through some time and effort in order to attain it.

    Consider the smile on the face of a child who says, “I think I’m getting it.” Or imagine the excitement that tennis students feel when noticing that their serve is improving, even if it’s a long way from that of a tennis pro. The pleasure in these cases is derived from the process of learning, not in having finished learning or achieving absolute certainty. This pleasure can sustain further exploration, play, and even hard work for an extended period of time.

    Finally, there is an extreme form of clarity. This occurs when the work has paid off, when things fall into place—those “Eureka!” moments. And the pleasure experienced can be rather intense; it’s the big reward for a job well done. But this extreme form of clarity is short-lasting, even momentary. After all, it would not be adaptive to bask too long in this state. The next new interesting thing starts exerting its own pull, so our mental models can be extended further still.

    So, clarity is much more than being clear. Most people do not jump to the solution of a crossword puzzle or the final chapter of a mystery. The pleasure of these endeavors is achieved not by the fastest route to being clear but by a process that sustains a degree of evolving uncertainty over a period of time, with a big payoff at the end when the final space is filled, when the guilty is finally confronted and unmasked.

    It might be tempting to arrange confusion, clarity, and boredom neatly along a one-dimensional continuum, with boredom and confusion at the poles and clarity at the “sweet spot” in between. But there are degrees of boredom, degrees of confusion, and as we have just seen degrees of clarity, which make a one-dimensional model insufficient. At this point it’s more important to appreciate the richness of the model than to nail down exactly how many dimensions are in play.


    We refer to the neural structures responsible for all this as the clarity mechanism. It includes detectors that determine when the cognitive process is in the realms of boredom, clarity, and confusion, and to what degree. And it includes linkages between those detectors and the neural centers responsible for the experience of pleasure and pain. It is mechanistic—there are causes and there are effects. We have no direct or conscious control over it, similar to how we breathe harder when we exert ourselves or how our pupils narrow when exposed to bright light. We can, however, choose situations and environments where we are more likely to experience clarity, confusion, or boredom. And, as described later, we can indirectly affect our cognitive state through our ability to pay attention.

    The term “clarity mechanism” is problematic, however. The name privileges clarity over boredom and confusion, even though the mechanism covers the entirety. And the term “clarity,” as it is typically used, is equated to simply being clear, thus losing the dimensionality of this use of the term. But the word “clarity” is engaging, perhaps due to the lack of clarity so many experience regularly. And there is a history to this use of the term “clarity” in cognitive psychology (e.g., Kaplan, 1991; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). So, despite its imperfect nature, the term persists.

    Whole industries are devoted to tickling our clarity mechanism, making this aspect of our psychology a source of tremendous profits. Consider novels, plays, and movies in which typically problems and challenges emerge, tension and uncertainty builds, and, as the narrative progresses, the promise of resolution is kept tantalizingly just out of reach until the shoe drops, the climax is reached, and the narrative quickly moves to a conclusion. Puzzles of various kinds, such as crossword, logic, and mechanical, create the conditions for emptiness or chaos to progressively turn into order and insight. And games, whether one is a player or an observer, move from uncertainty and possibility toward a final score. How-to books, magic shows, humor, gambling, continuing education classes, political elections, a variety of hobbies, and tourism all owe much of their appeal to the clarity mechanism.

    In the context of a specific topic, the clarity mechanism plays a changing role over time. A topic at first may be confusing, but as the concepts start to form, it can become engaging. Perhaps with time the topic will become old hat and boring. Yet at this stage, the developed concepts provide a means to further ends, and those ends are where the engagement can carry forward (Duvall, Chapter 20).

    Many people have gone through the experience of learning to drive. Early driving tends to be confusing. What is important to attend to and what is not? What am I missing? What did I forget? Student drivers often try to attend to too much, and early sessions are overwhelming and confusing and tend to leave them mentally drained. Eventually, however, the knowledge consolidates, and competent driving requires minimal active mental engagement. If skilled drivers thought only about the actual process of driving, they would certainly be bored. But that’s not what they do. Experienced drivers often end up at a destination without remembering the details of getting there, having used that time to think about other topics. In addition to giving a person time to think, driving can be a means to exploring geography and culture, to get to places where other skills can be developed.

    Flow as a Special Case of Clarity

    Many who learn about clarity see a resemblance to Csíkszentmihályi’s (1990) concept of flow, a psychologically immersive state of intense focus on the task at hand accompanied by a lack of self-awareness. A person in a state of flow feels energized and experiences enjoyment.

    An example would be a rock climber scaling a rock face, where the skill level of the climber and the challenge of the rock face are essentially matched. The climber is facing a series of challenges, figuring each out, and then moving onto the next, and is thus mentally engaged for an extended period of time. Achievements and satisfaction come at quick intervals. And because the task is so engaging, there is little opportunity to be self-aware. Video game designers try to deliver this same effect.

    Flow appears to be a case where clarity is stimulated over an extended period of time and at a pace generating a sustained feeling of pleasure. There is the constant sense of progress, of solving puzzles, of getting closer to one’s goal, of uncertainty giving way to certainty.

    Although flow is a special case of clarity, it is relatively rare when compared to more general cases when clarity can be achieved. And so when considering clarity in the context of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM), we will focus on the more common experience.

    Moving Forward

    RPM is interested in the conditions that elicit more reasonable behavior in people. One might theorize that pain is a factor in less reasonable behavior and that pleasure, at least in some cases, can lead to more reasonable behavior. With a basic understanding of the clarity mechanism and the conditions in which it can lead to the experience of pleasure and pain, we can see the dots sitting there ready to be connected. So, we will now take a look and see how the clarity mechanism interacts with the three components of RPM—model building, being effective, and meaningful action.[4]

    The Role of Clarity in Model Building

    People Want to Learn and to Understand, with Caveats

    The clarity mechanism exists to promote knowledge-seeking behavior that in turn results in the building and extending of mental models. People want to understand, and they will strive to understand when the circumstances support it. But it is more complicated than that. There are some fundamental tensions that can keep people from pursuing knowledge; to a large extent they stem from the fear of confusion and chaos.

    People do not want to be confused; they fear feeling “stupid,” especially in social contexts. Further, people prefer a pace that is neither so fast as to be confusing nor so slow as to be boring, a pace that is tailored to their own progress. And they hope that they will have support when they need it without feeling embarrassed. To some degree they fear boredom, but for the most part they fear confusion and the potential for humiliation that confusion can bring.

    There is another fear that is more profound than that of being confused: the fear of being left in a state of chaos, a more pervasive state of doubt and uncertainty. We are deeply invested in the knowledge we’ve gained through our experiences, the mental models we’ve built to interpret and navigate the world. They are the lenses through which we understand our experiences and decide what to do. Our emotional lives are embedded in our models; our loves and hates, desires and fears, hopes and dreams all exist within our models. And because of their central role in our day-to-day lives, people do not want to undermine their mental models. The confusion that would result from our core mental models collapsing would be profound, and so we are very cautious about putting these models at the cliff’s edge.[5]

    When we encounter information that challenges our core beliefs, we have a set of ready strategies to protect our models. Discounting or ignoring the information is one common strategy. Another is to seek out like-minded people to reinforce our existing models.[6] This is exemplified by the millions of small Internet communities that offer places where people can validate their existing beliefs socially.

    Teaching with the Clarity Mechanism in Mind

    Despite these potential sources of fear and reticence, people do want to learn. When designing an environment for learning, the clarity mechanism helps us to constrain the space of possibilities. We would generally like to minimize the sources of discomfort and leverage sources of pleasure in the learning environment, although perhaps confusion and boredom are among the motivators that draw in those who wish to learn.

    Confusion and boredom provide a dual tension. If we progress too slowly, learners might suffer from boredom and disengage. Moving too quickly before allowing key concepts to consolidate can lead to confusion. Adding to this challenge, many learning environments, such as classrooms, have students representing a range of skills and aptitudes, meaning that any given pace might simultaneously leave some bored and others confused.

    Editors’ Comment: Helping students understand their own progress and informational needs is an additional approach that is covered in Basu (Chapter 6).

    Allowing people to learn at a pace that works for them would be ideal, although it can be difficult in many circumstances. One strategy is to minimize lecture time and pivot as soon as reasonable to project work that helps solidify new concepts done by individuals or small groups.[7] Now the pace is more self-directed, and those who need additional help can get individualized assistance.

    Additionally, teachers are often challenged by the potential for boredom in those who might progress quickly. One approach is for projects to have optional components that provide engaging challenges that supplement the material. Under some circumstances, allowing the faster learners to support the teaching of others can be a win-win.[8] This can permit some learners to receive individual attention, while for the faster learners boredom is averted and deeper understanding can be achieved. This is not a risk-free strategy, however, as some types of help can undermine rather than encourage the learning process, and not everyone will appreciate the difference.

    Addressing the potential for confusion may be an even greater challenge. Building conceptual understanding in right-sized chunks is part of the solution. Using multiple, varied concrete examples can support abstract concepts that are nebulous at early stages and that benefit from grounding. Likewise, approaching a concept from multiple directions can be helpful, as different people will resonate better with different approaches.[9]

    As learners we want to move forward, experiment, and be willing to risk some failure along the way without the fear of confusion—that is, getting lost or making a muddled mess. Providing mechanisms for learners to retreat when they’ve gone too far can help address this potential fear. Software that provides users the ability to “undo” actions or “reset” to an earlier state supports the exploration of its users. There can be analogues to these in other learning environments as well. For example, when students become overwhelmed in a task, the teacher could guide them back by breaking down the task into smaller ones.

    Not only do we want to avoid confusion and boredom, we also want to engage the pleasures of the clarity mechanism. We would like to employ the pull of the promise of understanding, and when the pieces fall into place, allow the learner’s own clarity mechanism to provide the reward of a jolt of positive affect.

    One approach is to organize learning around questions,[10] as a question asked implies that the learner is already thinking about the issue and her or his receptivity is heightened. The desire is there to be leveraged. In a teaching context it can give the teacher insight into where the learner is at. Scheduling time for questions earlier in the process, rather than at the end, can bring about a rich set of questions without the askers fearing that they are exposing their failure to grasp what they were already believed to know. Creating lessons that promote questions is another approach. Perhaps there are some obvious gaps, or the ending is left out or abridged, or the unexpected happens. These leave the learners demanding answers and being highly receptive to them.

    We can further engage learners by structuring lessons in terms of puzzles and mysteries to be solved and then providing the resources for finding the solution. Asking learners to make predictions and invest a bit of themselves in an outcome can be very engaging, even if the predictions are not confirmed.[11] Leading learners down the garden path in order to elicit incorrect assumptions and models that are then overtly challenged can be very engaging.[12]

    As learners gain expertise, it can be difficult for them to appreciate their accomplishments. What was once challenging has become simple, perhaps even obvious and boring. This is a natural side effect when amorphous concepts become consolidated and efficient.[13] Assisting learners in appreciating their process and their progress can be helpful.[14] This helps them build a model of their own learning and gain confidence in their abilities. It encourages them to trust the process. And, if the learners ever find themselves in the role of a teacher, it may give them a sense of the challenges their own students will face and help them teach better.

    Teaching in the Context of Entrenched Models

    Editors’ Comment: Entrenched mental models represent a fundamental challenge for Monroe (Chapter 14), Hollett (Chapter 15), Kearney (Chapter 16), and A. Kaplan (Chapter 17); they discuss a variety of approaches for dealing with it.

    A particularly challenging scenario is when a teacher or author not only hopes to build mental models but also supplants the learner’s existing models. As mentioned previously, the fear of chaos may turn the learner away. There are approaches that can work some of the time.

    Rather than challenging the learner’s models head-on, a more incremental, less threatening approach is to offer an alternative perspective that might be helpful in some circumstances.[15] With such an approach, the learner can try out a new model without wholly adopting it or tearing down existing models. The ability of humans to take other perspectives, to empathize with another’s plight, if only temporarily, is truly amazing.

    This is analogous to planting a seed. If it takes root, it may grow and become an integral part of the person’s larger model. Even with its diminished status, the model may prove itself to be more and more useful by explaining more of the environment or allowing better predictions to be made. And if it does, the model may someday supplant or profoundly modify earlier models. There is no guarantee that this approach will ultimately work. But it does offer the possibility in a humane manner.

    The Role of Clarity in Being Effective

    The second component to RPM is being effective. Although it’s not the primary mechanism involved in being effective, the clarity mechanism does play a supplemental role.

    As described in Sullivan (Chapter 4), people need to direct their attention, to pay attention, in order to effectively handle cognitive tasks, including focusing in distracting environments, being patient, distilling what’s important, and switching mental gears. The previous section described clarity’s central role in promoting exploration and learning. Here we focus on the link between the resources that support directing one’s attention and the clarity mechanism.

    Environments That Support Clarity

    People have a strong desire for clarity; after all, it is an internal source of pleasure. This makes it essential to create environments that promote clarity. Such environments are interesting and engaging while not being too confusing or overwhelming. Distractions are minimized, navigation cues are available, and information comes at a manageable pace. In other words, environments that support people’s clarity make it easier for them to pursue their purposes.

    Many newer airport terminals are designed to help even first-time visitors find their way. First, they employ some standard features such as separate levels for departures and arrivals that are tuned to their respective purposes. The signage also tends to be standardized. And the gates are numbered and sequenced in an obvious way. Second, the paths of movement tend to be apparent, and going with the flow tends to be the right thing to do. For example, the path from the check-in area through security and to the gates tends to be apparent. And after one arrives and needs to find the luggage carousels or ground transportation, the path again tends to be clear, albeit supported by signage.

    Editors’ Comment: Designing environments that foster clarity requires input from users. Grese (Chapter 19) and Phalen (Chapter 21) discuss approaches that engage users in the participatory process.

    As is evident throughout this book, the concept of supportive environments applies not just to physical environments but applies more broadly and even in an abstract sense. There are learning environments, social environments, governmental environments, software environments, and so forth that can all benefit from being structured with cognitive clarity in mind. After all, you can get stuck in a computer program, lost in a lesson, mixed up in bureaucratic red tape, and disoriented by social interactions.

    For example, even a context as common as a form that needs to be filled out can be structured to reduce confusion and uncertainty. Techniques include the use of light text in the area to be filled out that provide an example of the type of answer expected, or the standard answer is made more obvious than the rarer answers. Larger forms can be broken down into smaller, more coherent pages that focus on a single topic; boxes and shading can be employed as well. Sometimes a progress indicator is provided so that one knows how close one is to finishing.

    Directed Attention as an Alternate Route to Clarity

    So, the environment can directly support clarity. But when an environment does not inherently support it, there is a second route to clarity, which is to impose it by applying focused attention (Kaplan, 1978). This directed attention[16] can be used to fight off distractions, search for missing information, interpret and reinterpret confusing clues, devise workarounds, and plan escape routes. But even though people can do this, directed attention is a resource that can be consumed and eventually exhausted, leaving people mentally fatigued.[17] And this can leave them frustrated, impatient, uncertain, drained, and unreasonable. The worst has been brought out in them.

    A lack of clarity is often the push behind the use of directed attention. When one feels obligated to stay and pay attention to something boring, one is using directed attention. When one is working hard to sort through confusing material, one is using directed attention. When one is overwhelmed and working to track three things at once, again, directed attention is being employed.

    The fundamental relationship between the clarity mechanism and being effective is that people will strive for clarity even when it comes at a personal cost to their effectiveness. When clarity is lacking it can feel like an acute problem, so people will lean on their directed attention, even if they know it will come at a cost; more often, however, they are not even aware of the cost. And this erosion of a key resource makes them less and less effective, which in turn may make them less and less reasonable.

    The activities advocated by Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1995, 2001)[18] should be a part of everyone’s life. Environments that do not support clarity make those activities an imperative.

    The Role of Clarity in Meaningful Action

    The clarity mechanism plays multiple roles in meaningful action, suggesting ways to help bring people on board, use their time effectively, keep them interested, and feel that their contributions are meaningful. Let us look at a number of ways in which the clarity mechanism participates in making action feel meaningful.

    Clarity of purpose. In many contexts, people prefer to have clarity of purpose. People want to understand what they are striving for, why it is important, and how they might get there. Sharing this vision helps people commit to spending their time and effort on a larger cause. And it will help them get through the inevitable rough patches and disappointments.[19]

    Clarity of Impact. There are times when it appears that there is a small set of potential outcomes, some better than others, and one’s actions will likely guarantee a preferable outcome. In other words, one is clear about the impact of one’s potential action and therefore more likely to act. For example, we might be more inclined to donate a specified amount of money if doing so means that a specific child will receive food, medical treatment, or the means to an education. Without one’s intervention the outcome for this child is uncertain, but if we act, the outcome appears clearly good. Under slightly different circumstances, as the next example illustrates, uncertainty is more likely to lead to action.

    Uncertainty of outcome. People are often attracted to an uncertain outcome in which their contribution may make a difference, but the situation does not seem hopeless. It is not that people necessarily like uncertainty but that there are times when the uncertainty makes our participation more meaningful. Imagine an election in which you’re deeply committed to one candidate who is doing well in the polls. Then there is a turn of events and the polls are tightening. You are no doubt unhappy about this, yet you are now more likely to donate your time, expertise, and money. The pleasure of moving the ball forward, of possibly participating in a narrow victory, can be a tremendous source of cognitive engagement and pleasure.[20] Unlike clarity of impact where there is a more direct pleasure of achieving the certainty of a desired outcome, here the action emerges from the combination of a feared outcome, the engagement of uncertainty, and the hope of making a difference.

    Clarity of task. In large endeavors, goals and subgoals are necessarily broken down into a series of tasks to be distributed among participants who want to know what their tasks are, how they will know when they have achieved them, and how they fit with their own goals. Perhaps most important of all, people want to understand how their task, no matter how small or mundane, ties into the larger purpose.[21]

    Challenge. People enjoy having a challenge. Boring, repetitive work can be painful and draining. Over time, such work can diminish directed attention and make people less effective, another component of RPM. But give people a task that they are barely competent at, that gives them the opportunity to grow, and they become excited and engaged. And when they complete their task well, they will have a sense of accomplishment and cognitive pleasure.

    Clarity of self. People not only have mental models of the environments they inhabit; they also have a model, likely multiple models, of themselves. They want to understand how they fit into the world, how they contribute to larger causes, how they will have made a difference when their time here comes to an end. The meaningful actions that people undertake contribute to their self-models and give them sources of clarity about themselves.[22]

    When individuals look for ways to invest their own time or when trying to attract others to larger causes, it can be helpful to understand how the clarity mechanism assists people in finding meaning. The list above is certainly not exhaustive, and its applicability will vary with circumstances. However, even if only a few of the items can be addressed at any particular time, people’s engagement and sense of meaning can be enhanced.


    The clarity mechanism is fundamental to being human. It is pervasive in our lives, guiding us hour by hour, pulling us in some directions, pushing us away from others. And achieving clarity is a deep-rooted goal. When environments are structured with clarity in mind, people are better able to pursue their purposes, amazing things can happen, and people are more likely to be reasonable. Whether it’s designing environments for learning, helping people maintain their effectiveness, or providing opportunities for meaningful action, the clarity mechanism can be a tremendous ally when understood.


    1. Hebb (1972) described humankind’s ambivalent nature—both disliking work but also inventing work for oneself when there is none. He describes the need for play and engagement. Likewise, Catton (1969) described the need for challenge and uncertainty.return to text

    2. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (1982) identified confusion as a key motivator, and Stephen Kaplan would later integrate it as a component of the clarity mechanism (see the Acknowledgments in this chapter).return to text

    3. Stephen Kaplan appears to be the first to use the term “clarity” to encompass this range of psychological experiences. Prior to integrating clarity into the larger theory of the clarity mechanism, Kaplan (1978) saw the interplay between clarity and attention. He also incorporated clarity into a broader theory of decision making (Kaplan 1991).return to text

    4. Readers of this volume will get a good and well-rounded sense of RPM. Additional information can be found in Kaplan and Kaplan (2003, 2009).return to text

    5. Rachel Kaplan (Chapter 2) discusses this phenomenon as well.return to text

    6. Examples of this can be seen in the farmers in Monroe (Chapter 14), the communities that don’t appreciate the help in Gallagher (Chapter 8), and the challenges of the mediation process in Hollett (Chapter 15).return to text

    7. For some wonderful examples of this, see Grese (Chapter 19) and Kumler (Chapter 18).return to text

    8. Ginsburg (Chapter 9) has examples of this in the prison environment.return to text

    9. Kumler (Chapter 18) discusses how combining a variety of approaches, including direct learning and participatory action, improves student outcomes.return to text

    10. R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) discusses cases in which questions can be counterproductive.return to text

    11. One day in high school we arrived in physics class to find an apparatus that would allow a metal ball to roll down a ramp to gain speed and then be launched horizontally off the edge of a table. We were given the means to measure the ball’s speed and had to predict where the ball would land using our knowledge of gravity and momentum. We tried to pencil an “X” on the floor to mark our prediction, but it was too faint to see, so one of us put a quarter on the spot. We released the ball and it landed on the quarter, sending it flying across the room—to our amazement and celebration.return to text

    12. In an undergraduate physics course we were studying polarized light. The professor led us systematically through a set of experiments that projected light through different combinations of polarizing filters. He set up our intuitions to be in conflict with the implications of the equations we’d learned. And as he pieced together the final experiment that would resolve the conflict, many of us were on the edge of our seats.return to text

    13. S. Kaplan (Chapter 3) delves more deeply into the topic of expertise.return to text

    14. My seventh-grade English teacher had us write a one-page essay on the first day of class and returned it to us at the end of the school year. This was very amusing and instructive for the students.return to text

    15. Elbow (1998, pp. 200–206) advocates this as a technique when trying to write persuasively.return to text

    16. William James (1892) was the first to describe this type of attention, although he referred to it as “voluntary attention.”return to text

    17. Kaplan and Kaplan (1982) were the first to describe this as a source of mental fatigue. Kaplan and Kaplan (2003) and Sullivan (Chapter 4) discuss the phenomenon in the context of RPM.return to text

    18. These activities are described in Sullivan (Chapter 4).return to text

    19. Bardwell (Chapter 7) echoes this when describing the importance of a “common agenda.” Gallagher (Chapter 8) describes the importance of finding a shared vision that emanates from the community. Ryan and Buxton (Chapter 11) discuss the need to “articulate a holistic vision” as key to garnering participation. Zautra, Hall, and Murray (2010) discuss the importance of a sense of purpose in an individual’s resilience.return to text

    20. Duvall (Chapter 20) discusses how the uncertainty of outcome is helpful in creating engagement.return to text

    21. This can be seen in the “notion of mutually reinforcing activities” as described in Bardwell (Chapter 7), the “small steps” of Ryan and Buxton (Chapter 11), and the “clear program of activities and expectations” in Wells and Pillemer (Chapter 10).return to text

    22. This is the core theme in Basu (Chapter 6). Duvall (Chapter 20) discusses how an advantage of engagement-based approaches in sustaining change is that they help individuals gain knowledge about themselves.return to text


    • Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Bogin, B. (1997). Evolutionary hypotheses for human childhood. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 40, 63–89.
    • Catton, W. R., Jr. (1969). Motivations of wilderness users. In S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape: Environments for people (pp. 112–114). Belmont, CA: Duxbury. Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrichs Books, 1982.
    • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
    • Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Hebb, D. O. (1972). A textbook of psychology (3rd ed., pp. 208–215). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
    • James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Harper Torchbook Edition, 1961.
    • Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. In S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape: Environments for people (pp. 84–90). Belmont, CA: Duxbury. Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrichs Books, 1982.
    • Kaplan, S. (1991). Beyond rationality: Clarity-based decision making. In T. Gärling & G. Evans (Eds.), Environment, cognition and action: An integrative multidisciplinary approach (pp. 171–190). New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169–182.
    • Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480–506.
    • Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (1982). Cognitive chaos: Attention and stress (ch. 5). In Cognition and environment: Functioning in an uncertain world. New York: Praeger. Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrichs Books, 1989.
    • Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (2003). Health, supportive environments, and the Reasonable Person Model. American Journal of Public Health, 93(9), 1484–1489.
    • Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (2009). Creating a larger role for environmental psychology: The Reasonable Person Model as an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(3), 329–339.
    • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
    • Roth, G., & Dicke, U. (2005). Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 250–257.
    • Zautra, A. J., Hall, J. S., & Murray, K. E. (2010). Resilience: A new definition of health for people and communities. In J. W. Reich, A. J. Zautra, & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience. New York: Guilford.


    This chapter is infused with Stephen Kaplan’s insights and would not have been possible without the many discussions we’ve had. He can be credited with integrating the ideas surrounding confusion, boredom, and clarity into the unified concept of the clarity mechanism that drives a variety of human behavior. Furthermore, the link between the human need for clarity and what William James (1892) termed “voluntary attention” (and what we now commonly call “directed attention”) can be attributed to him as well.