We’re Hard-Wired to Avoid Uncertainty – And That’s Not Good

How well do you deal with uncertainty? Probably not as well as you’d like – and that’s a problem, because the uncertainty we’re facing in 2020 will continue for some time to come.

Unfortunately, we’re hard-wired to prefer certainty, and there’s research to prove it. In 2016, a team of researchers ran an experiment to find the relationship between stress and uncertainty. They designed a computer game where participants were asked to turn over rocks on the screen, and were given an electric shock(!) if there was a snake under a rock.

The researchers could change the game in two ways:

  • Increase the danger by putting snakes under more of the rocks, or
  • Increase the uncertainty by moving the snakes around between each move.

As you would expect, the participants were more stressed as the number of snakes increased. But they were even more stressed when they didn’t know if a “safe” rock might have a snake under it next time. They would rather have a dangerous environment with more snakes, as long as they could eventually determine where the snakes were.

In other words, they were more stressed by uncertain outcomes than by predictable negative outcomes.

The same thing applies to our future!

There are two kinds of future – the kind you can see and the kind you can’t. You must get ready for both.

It’s like planning a journey over a mountain. We can see the summit, so we can plan that half of the journey – even if it’s difficult and treacherous. But we can’t see what’s on the other side, and that uncertainty causes the most stress.

This is probably true for you (and you know it).

In a recent presentation for the Governance Institute of Australia, I asked participants about these two futures. These participants are senior leaders and board members, so they play a very significant role in many of Australia’s largest organisations.

I asked them four questions. The first two were about how they – as individual leaders – dealt with certainty and uncertainty; and the next two were the same questions but about their boards.

Here were the results (each question is a rating from 1-5):

As you can see, these leaders rated themselves and their teams (boards) high when they are facing a known future – even if they know it’s a challenging or difficult future. But they also rate themselves and their teams significantly lower at operating in an uncertain future.

Over the last few years, I’ve asked the same questions to leaders across many industries, and the results are similar. We’re confident of managing challenging scenarios and achieving big goals, as long as we can see the future ahead. But as soon as the future becomes cloudy and uncertain, many people flounder and don’t know what to do.

Become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Regardless of how hard you’ve been hit by COVID-19 – either its health impact or economic impact – there’s no doubt our future has become less certain. And as much as we would like to think it’s a temporary problem, all the signs are that we’re in this for the long haul.

So, overcome your natural hard-wiring and become more comfortable with uncertainty.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the future is uncertain.


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