Living with Uncertainty
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 25, 2021 (edited June 21, 2022)
Uncertainty is an ever-present character in our lives. We can deny it or accept it. A healthy relationship with uncertainty improves well-being.
We live in the fuzzy muck of uncertainty. Science, politics, medical predictions, and nature creep in the dark corners of the unknowable. Our "knowledge" tentatively rests on unproven theories and reasonable guesses. Uncertainty avoidance in science is typically used to measure cultural differences in tolerating the unknown, however, we, as individuals, vary in our toleration skills and abilities. As we develop our ability to live with uncertainty, we more effectively adapt to the dynamic world of change—the world we call home.
Unpredicted pain ignites a different biological response, involving different regions of the brain. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, wrote that "it’s unpredictable pain, rather than pain itself, that activates the amygdala. Pain (and the amygdala’s response to it) is all about context" (2018, location 740).
Reid Hastie and Robyn Dawes wrote in their comprehensive research in uncertainty and decision making that, "people who attempt to grasp the totality of situations in order to predict or control exactly what will happen seldom fare as well as those who seek the more modest goal of living with the uncertainty..." (2009, location 3888).
Uncertainty Avoidance is a cultural dimension measuring a society's tolerance of ambiguity.
Balancing Confidence and Uncertainty
Confidence is a child of certainty. We want confidence; it provides security but that confidence must be balanced with openness to new experiences, leading to continued growth and learning.
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson warn that "the unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness. When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance" (2020, location 3572).
Perhaps, the problem is we place confidence in the wrong object. We rely on our infallibility instead of confidently believing in our ability to discern personal error when more facts are available; confidence in the ability to adjust; confidence in openness; confidence in our ability to surf the changing waves of uncertainty.
"Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty."
Life is complicated, each difficult decision has countless known and unknown factors. Hidden in each of these decisions is uncertainty, and inherent to uncertainty is wrong decisions. We could have made a choice that would have faired better if we knew the unknown circumstances. "If only, I had known," we might muse.
"All of us have hard decisions to make at times in our lives; not all of them will be right, and not all of them will be wise" remind Tavris and Aronson. "Some are complicated, with consequences we could never have foreseen. If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life's complexity" (location 3579).
"I have devoted my life to uncertainty. Certainty is the death of wisdom, thought, creativity."
External Factors of Uncertainty
Our myopic view of uncertainty tolerance as a valuable characteristic is misguided. While we must comfortably tolerate some uncertainty, we can't live in chaos. We need stability. We need certainties. Habits, routines, and reliable others stabilize our lives, leaving cognitive space to manage our inevitable changing environments.
Countries and regions with extreme political, economic, and environmental uncertainties tend to adopt more rigid standards in other areas to compensate. War torn countries tend to correlate with radical adherence to strict religious directives for behavior. The rules for right and wrong create a certainty.
When money, safety and justice are uncertain, relying on uncontrollable factors, individuals are likely to adopt radical beliefs (conspiracies) that alleviate some of the discomfort of uncertainty.
"Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability."
Hastie and Dawes explain that "a common way of dealing with our experience of the uncertainty in life is to ignore it completely, or to invent some “higher rationale” to explain it" (2009, location 6388). Famous physicist Richard Feynman firmly counsels against using denial or faulty constructs to relieve the discomfort of uncertainty. He explains that "if we are free of doubt or ignorance, we will not get any new ideas or make any progress" (Castillo, 2010).
Avoiding uncertainty, dodging fears of being wrong, and imbuing the unknown with magical and unsupported explanations shakes our confidence in our strength to adapt.
See Adaptation Psychology for more on this topic
"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."
Uncertainty Can Inspire Awe
Sarah Wilson in her wonderful book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful wrote that to live a wholehearted life we had to "get cool" with uncertainty. She explains that this requires us "to sit comfortably in mystery without grasping outward. To sit. To stay. And see what happens" (2018, location 4017).
Instead of being a terrible monster, uncertainty is beautiful complexity. Our acceptance of the inevitable collisions with life from mispredictions doesn't indicate we are flawed or stupid. We are small specks on a grand canvas. Our living existence in this wondrous universe can inspire awe.
See Awe for more on this topic
Uncertainty is fundamental to hope, freedom of choice and ethical behavior. Hastie and Dawes explain that "It is only because we do not know what the future holds for us...that we can have hope. It is only because we do not know exactly the future results of our choices that our choice can be free and can pose a true ethical dilemma." They believe that uncertainty is so fundamental that the wisest choice we can make is to accept its existence (2009, location 6651).
We can comfortably live in the fuzzy muck of the unknown. We can sit with the wondrous world of complexity that surrounds every moment. Instead of avoiding uncertainties, we can move with them, surfing their wild and exhilarating surprises. We can befriend the ever-present uncertainty, allowing its influence to add texture, richness, and meaning to our lives.
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Castillo, M. (2010). The Uncertainty of Science and the Science of Uncertainty. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 31(10), 1767
Hastie, R., Dawes, R.M. (2009). Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. SAGE Publications, Inc; Second edition
Sapolsky, R. M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner; Reprint edition
Wilson, S. (2018). First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety. Dey Street Books.