For Humans to have evolved, we have had to question our own existence.

Throughout history, philosophers and explorers have proved and disproved the many assumptions about life. They have never stopped questioning what we assume to be certain.

Despite this, humans — and even our brains — are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is a discomforting itch that just wants to be scratched!

Thoughts of uncertainty about our future can generate a stress reaction, or what we call the ‘fight or flight’ response, in our limbic system, which is the emotional centre of our brain. The brain detects something is wrong when we have thoughts of uncertainty. Our ability to focus on other issues diminishes, as looking for answers to resolve that which we are most stressed about is more important for our brains.

Most people live day to day worrying about the uncertainty of the future. Thoughts about money, work, relationships and family consume the average person’s thoughts. Though ultimately, uncertainty is just a perspective… isn’t it?

Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman at the University of Pennsylvania showed in their research that having a negative perspective is more contagious than having a positive perspective.

The amygdala, which is part of our limbic system and plays a key role in the processing of emotions, uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experience. Once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory almost instantaneously. Whereas with positive experiences we need to be consciously aware of them for more than 12 seconds for it to transfer from short-term to long-term memory.

American writer and speaker Jonah Lehrer hypothesised that we crave information for its own sake because information reduces the sense of uncertainty, even if it doesn’t make us more effective or adaptive. He says, “One thing we can do is play to this craving for information. Even if it isn’t definitive about what will happen, getting information helps.”

The wisdom of uncertainty doesn’t reject human intellect; it encourages us to understand more.

Learning to be uncertain highlights the importance of understanding through experience.

Research has found that people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. In a study, Eldar Shafir, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Amos Tversky, who was a cognitive and mathematical psychologist, asked college students to imagine they had taken a difficult exam, but were not sure whether they had passed or failed. As they were walking up the street after the exam, they passed a travel agency offering a low fare for a trip to the Bahamas. The fare would expire that day, before they would find out whether they passed or failed the exam. Students were asked whether they wanted to take the trip. They could also pay $5 to extend the low-fare offer until the next day. The majority of participants elected to pay the money to extend to get the low fare. That is, they were uncomfortable making a choice in the face of uncertainty.

Interestingly, two other groups of participants were run in this study. One group was told they took a difficult exam and passed. Another was told they took a difficult exam and failed. After that, they were given the same opportunity to take the discounted trip. The majority of people in both groups elected to take the trip.

So whether we like it or not, life is changeable and uncertain. So while we may naturally search for rules and approaches we view as certain, uncertainty is a permanent fixture in life. It’s what keeps things interesting, engaging, and fulfilling. If you knew what to expect all the time, my guess is you’d probably get bored.


Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion –

The Disjunction Effect in Choice under Uncertainty –