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Uncertainty: Not knowing is making us sick

If you don’t like uncertainty, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t, and will go to great lengths to reduce uncertainty, even in ways that seem quite dysfunctional.

In this article, I will first describe some studies about uncertainty. After that, I will very briefly describe strategies to deal with it.

First, some studies about how people deal with uncertainty. In this section, I will be quoting, verbatim, parts of an article by Daniel Gilbert, who is professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness.”

“Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

“That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.

“Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

“But why?

“A colostomy reroutes the colon so that waste products leave the body through a hole in the abdomen, and it isn’t anyone’s idea of a picnic. A University of Michigan-led research team studied patients whose colostomies were permanent and patients who had a chance of someday having their colostomies reversed. Six months after their operations, patients who knew they would be permanently disabled were happier than those who thought they might someday be returned to normal.

“Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease. Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

“Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.”

Professor Gilbert has a knack with words. That last phrase is quite powerful: “stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait”.

So how can we deal with “nothing to do but wait”?

One thing is to not take it for granted that there is nothing to do. This includes:
- Getting as much information as possible to better understand the situation, and thus reduce the uncertainty
- Preparing “what if” scenarios and contingency plans. The practical reasons are obvious: Being ready for possible outcomes. There is also an important symbolic value: We are taking some form of action instead of just waiting passively.

The above may help, but will probably not be enough to reduce stress in the face of uncertainty where there is actually “nothing to do but wait.” 

Why? When there is a threat, we get a lot of nervous energy. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated, providing the energy necessary for fight-or-flight. Not only that, our capacity for intelligent thinking is greatly reduced, as a result of physiological processes that shuts down more elaborate processes to focus all energy on fight-or-flight. This is great when there is a clear and present danger (e.g. you’re a gazelle seeing a lion, and you better focus all your energy on running far, far away, as fast as possible).

This is not so great when fight-or-flight reactions are not appropriate to the situation. In such a case, we’re flooded by energy that has no place to go. We end up looking and feeling more like a deer in the headlights than the gazelle of the preceding paragraph.

Dealing with uncertainty is not just a cognitive process. It also involves training our nervous system to process this kind of activation, very much the way one becomes able to lift progressively heavier weights through training. When you pay attention to your “felt sense” and your body sensations, it is a sort of bio-feedback: You get an inner reading of your activation, and you become progressively more able to regulate it.

from mindless to mindful

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