Coping with Uncertainty
Do you fear the unknown or see it as a friend? How comfortable are you in uncertain situations? Objectively speaking, of course, nothing is ever certain. "The future's not ours to see," as the song proclaims. Subjectively, however, people often feel certain about things and rest assured that their worldviews hold true. They generalize from experience and assume that whatever has been will continue to be: that taking their habitual route to work will get them there, that their head cold will be gone within days, that the sun will rise in the east, and that their life routines will continue unperturbed.
Life inevitably involves change, however. Sometimes the pace and magnitude of change surpass people's ability to adjust to it. When that happens, people are confronted head-on with uncertainty.
In recent decades, world events evoked feelings of uncertainty in millions of people. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic fostered fear of an unseen and unknown virus. Abundant evidence attests that people's overwhelming reactions to the COVID-based uncertainty were anxiety and fear. Data from around the globe showed a spike in reported distress tied to the pandemic. The 2020 report of the World Health Organization (WHO) showed a 35 percent increase in distress in China, 60 percent in Iran, and 45 percent in the U.S. In regions of Ethiopia, there has been a threefold increase in the frequency of depression and anxiety relative to the pre-pandemic rate. Overall, figures from different corners of the world told the same story: people were deeply disconcerted by the pandemic.
But one doesn't need the pandemic to observe that people feel troubled by uncertainty. This theme has resounded loudly in folk wisdom and scientific psychology alike. My own decades-long work on the need for cognitive closure also highlights how people try to escape from uncertainty by "jumping to conclusions," using stereotypes, and engaging in categorical "black and white" thinking oblivious to nuance. Psychological theory and research generally portray uncertainty as threatening.
Must people feel anxious and fearful in the presence of uncertainty, and do all they can to escape it? Or can people embrace the opportunities uncertainty affords, and look for the silver lining in its murky cloud?
Some people are more distraught by uncertainty than others. Moreover, some uncertainties are more upsetting than others. The COVID pandemic, for example, presented a great uncertainty associated with the risk of infection and its highly negative outcomes: the possibility of dying or suffering a long illness, losing family and friends to the pandemic, or losing a job or one's home because of the pandemic's economic repercussions.
Not all uncertainties are threatening, however. In fact, some bring to mind downright delightful outcomes: A trip to a new country, expecting a new baby, or initiating a relationship that promises to be interesting, rewarding, and meaningful. So, perhaps it is not uncertainty itself that causes distress, but rather the negative outcomes that people associate with the uncertain situation.
The positive and negative outcomes people associate with uncertainty depend on how they are represented in our conscious minds. When the situation is ambiguous and uncertain, people may foresee either its positive or negative consequences. In that sense, uncertainty is a bit like a Rorschach ink blot. Some people may project onto it their inner "demons," hence feel fearful and strive to escape the uncertain situation; others may project onto it their inner "angels," hence feel hopeful and welcome it.
What might predispose some people to accentuate the positive and others to accentuate the negative? Recently my colleagues and I identified two factors that influence these tendencies. One is what we call the long-term history of outcomes, especially one's childhood outcomes. In a recent study we carried out with 495 American adults we found that people with more positive childhood perceptions of their parents (including the parents' perceived warmth, involvement, and autonomy support) were more tolerant of uncertainty and had more positive attitudes toward several uncertain events such as a blind date, the first day of school, or the birth of a new sibling.
We also found that people who had experienced adverse childhood experiences (e.g., being insulted and put down by adults, skipping meals because of food shortages, witnessing beatings or stabbings) were more intolerant of uncertainty, which subsequently predicted negative attitudes to the same uncertain events.
Research also reveals that a long-term history of outcomes can be overridden by recent outcomes, at least temporarily. When something good happens, it is like a shot of optimism, inducing hope that the next outcome will be good as well. And when something bad happens, pessimism about impending outcomes sets in. Yet the impact of positive and negative outcomes wears off, and soon people are back to their baseline level of optimism or pessimism, driven largely by their long-term outcome history.
In a study designed to test these ideas, we first asked 461 people how good or bad their long-term outcomes had been. For example, people indicated how much they agreed with statements like, "More good things than bad things have happened to me in the past;" and "In my life, everything has always worked out well." Then participants responded to a 10-item general knowledge test. We varied the feedback participants received to alter their short-term outcomes. Half of the participants received positive feedback indicating that they did well on the quiz, whereas the other half received negative feedback indicating that they did poorly.
Our main interest was in how participants' long-term and short-term outcomes affected their positive and negative feelings about an uncertain situation, specifically "having to stay in a place where they have never been before." Their feelings about the uncertain situation were measured either immediately after they received the outcome of the quiz, or after a 2-day delay.
When their feelings about the uncertain situation were assessed immediately after receiving feedback, those who received positive feedback about their quiz performance felt better about the uncertain situation than those who received negative feedback. Participants' long-term outcome histories, in contrast, had no effect on feelings about the uncertain situation. In sum, short-term outcomes can override the effect of long-term histories on people's feelings about an uncertain situation.
The results completely reversed when feelings were measured two days later. Here, the quiz feedback had no effect on people's feelings about the uncertain situation, but their long-term history of outcomes did. People who viewed their outcome histories as mostly positive felt better about the uncertain situation than people with more negative long-term histories. After two days, the effect of test feedback on feelings about uncertainty disappeared, and long-term outcome histories once again predicted how people felt about an uncertain situation.
In general, then, baseline levels of optimism or pessimism linked to a history of good or bad life outcomes determine how people feel about uncertain situations. Short-term positive or negative outcomes can temporarily override this tendency, but only briefly.
Fortunately, optimism and pessimism aren't set in stone and can be modified. Optimism can be learned by changing the way people explain their failures and successes as Martin Seligman has demonstrated. The dread of negative outcomes can be overcome by adopting what Carol Dweck has called a growth mindset, the belief that our abilities (like intelligence) and other attributes (like moral character) are malleable and can be developed through learning. Similarly, grit––the ability to persist at goal pursuit despite stumbling blocks—can also be systematically developed, as Angela Duckworth has shown. Finally, the Buddhist approach recommends learning to detach oneself from outcomes, both good and bad, and to welcome uncertainty as a friend, whatever seems to be lying in its wings.
In short, people can embrace rather than escape uncertainty, and benefit from the opportunities that uncertainty offers. Almost any uncertain situation has a silver lining waiting to be discovered. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, for all the loss and restrictions it imposed, allowed some people to cultivate their hobbies, enjoy nature, and help others. Or consider Travis Roy, a gifted hockey player, who was permanently paralyzed in an accident. Undaunted, he obtained a college degree and became a gifted inspirational speaker who raised millions of dollars for spinal injury research.
No matter how dire the situation may seem, people with an optimistic mindset may be able to see possibilities and seize opportunities in uncertain situations. Ultimately, that is the hopeful message of the psychological study of uncertainty.
For Further Reading
Kruglanski, A. W. (Un) Certain: How to turn your biggest fear into your greatest power. London: Penguin/Random House, UK. 2023
Kruglanski, A. W. The psychology of closed-mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.
Arie Kruglanski is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has served as editor of several scientific journals and as President of the Society for the Study of Motivation. He studies human judgment and decision-making, the interface between motivation and cognition, group and intergroup processes, the psychology of human goals, and the social psychological aspects of terrorism.