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 and 2021 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 many presentations over the last decade, I have asked leaders how they deal with uncertainty. I ask them how well they operate when their future is known (even if it’s difficult) and contrast that with how well they operate when facing an uncertain future. I also ask them to assess their teams in those two scenarios.

Over the years, I have conducted these surveys in many industries and at different leadership levels. The numbers varied slightly, but the pattern was consistent – for example:

Not surprisingly, most leaders rated themselves high when they operate in a known future – even if it’s challenging. It’s also not surprising they rated themselves higher than their team. They also rate themselves and their teams lower – but not by much – when operating in an uncertain future.

In 2020, after the pandemic hit, there was one significant difference: They rated themselves and their teams lower when operating in uncertainty. Having actually experienced a major disruption, they realised they weren’t as good as they thought in leading themselves and their teams through it.

These informal surveys aren’t rigorous science, but they match what the research says about uncertainty and the unknown (for example, the study I mentioned above about the fear of the unknown). Not only does uncertainty affect our emotional state now, it also makes it more difficult to plan for the future. As soon as the future becomes cloudy and uncertain, many people flounder and don’t know what to do.

Become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Even across one country, different people are affected differently – with lockdowns, mask-wearing, interstate travel restrictions, and so on. Regardless of the impact of COVID-19 – its health impact, economic impact, social impact, or some combination of them – 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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