The Psychology Behind Confusion
Self Help

The Psychology Behind Confusion

The Psychology Behind Confusion

Confusion is a common problem among people. We all feel confused sometimes on various occasions like while studying you might be confused about the topic, or even the simple confusion in the morning about what to wear or what to have for breakfast. Confusion is a psychological state of mind characterized by a lack of clarity, understanding, or certainty about something. It can manifest itself in many ways, such as difficulty making decisions, feeling disoriented or unsure, or feeling mental fog. Confusion mostly arises when individuals encounter contradictory or complex information, face ambiguous situations, or struggle to process overwhelming stimuli. It reflects a disruption in the mental cognitive processes, where the brain is unable to effectively organize or interpret the incoming information.

Also Read: Decoding Love-Related Confusion: Insecurity and Self-Esteem in Relationships

Confusion can stem from various factors like:

  • Cognitive Dissonance: Lion Festinger proposed the cognitive dissonance theory, which states that when individuals hold conflicting beliefs or ideas, they may experience confusion as they try to reconcile these conflicting thoughts.
  • Information Overload: due to the internet and various platforms there is a lot of information available to us. Processing this overload of information can overwhelm cognitive capacities, leading to confusion.
  • Ambiguity: When individuals are presented with ambiguous or unclear situations, it can provoke confusion as they lack the necessary information to make sense of the situation or make informed decisions.
  • Emotional State: When individuals are under emotional high like, high stress, anxiety, or fatigue, it impacts their cognitive functioning. It makes it difficult for individuals to process information effectively and leads to confusion.
  • Lack Of Prior Knowledge: when we are presented with a novel and complex problem of which we do not have prior knowledge, it leads us to get confused and difficult to comprehend.

Confusion A Part Of Knowledge Emotions

When we talk about emotions it basically is about the most obvious ones like happiness, sadness, fear, etc. But there are also other kinds of emotions called knowledge, emotions which include the emotional states that encourage learning, exploring, and reflecting. Knowledge emotions include surprise, interest, confusion, awe etc. These are a part of knowledge emotions because the events that bring them are about knowledge. They are triggered when anything goes against what people anticipate or believe. Also, these feelings are essential to learning because they gradually accumulate into practical information about the outside world. The appraisal theory of emotions states that each emotion is caused by a group of appraisals or judgment evaluations of the events in the world for our goals and well-being.

Looking through the appraisal theory, confusion comes from evaluating an event as high in novelty, complexity, and unfamiliarity and judging it as hard to comprehend. Knowledge, emotion, and confusion foster the learning process. It might not sound obvious because confusion can lead us to feel frustrated and thus likely to quit. However, it has been proved through a study that confusion can help students learn better as it makes them think through the problem.

In an experiment, two virtual reality instructors taught pupils about scientific research techniques.

Also Read: Mental Health Issues in Cancer Patients During Treatment

But occasionally, the tutors contradicted one another, leaving the students confused. Hence, students had to work through confusion. This made them learn and understand concepts more deeply as they were better at accurately applying what they learned to new issues. This was demonstrated by measures of simple learning, which measures recall for fundamental concepts, and deep learning, which measures the ability to transfer an idea to a new area.

Is Confusion Always Beneficial?

Well, we have seen how confusion can be beneficial but is it always the case? Sometimes confusion can be really frustrating and disengaging. When you get confused by something completely irrelevant to what you are trying to learn, it is not beneficial, nor it is helpful in the learning process. Also, experiencing confusion when you lack the resources to solve it can exacerbate the confusion and frustration. Hence, we can say that confusion isn’t always beneficial and how it gets beneficial is dependent on certain situations like when it relates to the content you’re trying to understand; and when you have the tools and resources to help you sort it out, whether those tools are from other people or your own skills and past knowledge.

Research On Personality And Confusion

Psychologists have distinguished personality into five subcategories, calling it the big five. They are openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which is emotional stability. A research study was conducted by German psychologists, which examined the likelihood that those with high openness scores on the personality are more likely to respond favorably to feelings of confusion. To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 225 participants for a short study. Participants rated eighteen different works of art. The works of art varied in theme, style, and time. Some works of art were more abstract than others. Participants rated their interest and confusion (1 = not interested, 7 = very interested) in the works of art.

The participants were also asked to complete a five-factor personality test, known as the NEO Five-factor personality test. This test measures a person’s personality traits, such as: extraversion conscientiousness agreeableness emotional stability open to new experiences. Findings supported their hypothesis that people who were on the personality dimension of openness to new experiences were more likely to be drawn to the work which evoked a certain degree of confusion.

Though they also hypothesized that interest and confusion were on the opposite sides, they found no relationship between them.

Also Read: Stonewalling vs. Gaslighting


In summary, confusion can sometimes really help with solving problems and is an emotion that can also be expressed in facial expressions. Understanding the psychology of confusion can help people and organizations create interventions to reduce the impact of confusion, such as clear communication, segmentation, and environments conducive to cognitive processing and learning. Hence, next time you are confused try to find the root cause of your confusion and explore the problem with the required resources for a better learning experience.

Also Read: The Psychology of Consistency

  • Fayn, K., Silvia, P. J., Dejonckheere, E., Verdonck, S., & Kuppens, P. (2019). Confused or curious? Openness/intellect predicts more positive interest-confusion relations. Journal of personality and social psychology


Leave feedback about this

  • Rating