The Discomfort of Uncertainty

Over the past few months a sense of anxiety has been growing within me. Politics on a world scale are being played out and decisions are being made with ramifications yet to be known.

Regardless of your politics the events of the world have triggered thoughts of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a form of discomfort which is essential to the human experience.

Much of my life has been plagued by some form of anxiety. From a young age I remember being engrossed in politics both at home and on the international stage. My mum vividly remembers my prediction of the war on terror as a then 11-year-old.

A key feature in my anxiety as an adult was the discomfort of uncertainty. As a child in a middle-class family my life was full of certainty. As children, much of our lives are out of our control – our parents and guardians make our decisions for us. Time goes by in an instant, they say, and then we find ourselves as adults.

As you hit adulthood, certainty leaves you as you move into the world and grow.

Uncertainty is a poisonous thing. The human mind desires certainty, which is of course, a hard thing to obtain in an uncertain world. Certainty demands a black and white answer.

We cannot function without the pursuit of certainty. No decision in life can be made without it. Crossing the street, what to eat, where to live…

Arie Kruglanski, born in Poland in 1938, coined the idea of cognitive closure in 1989. Put simply, Cognitive Closure is the need for certainty. Kruglanski was raised in a ghetto during the height of World War Two. In a video by the New York Times, filmmaker Daniele Anastasion recorded Mr Kruglanksi’s thoughts on uncertainty.

“What if I told you that your entire worldview has nothing to do with information or facts? Politics aren’t just a matter of judgement – People’s politics are driven by their psychological needs.

“People who are anxious because of the uncertainty that surrounds them are going to be attracted by the messages that offer certainty. The need for closure is the need for certainty. The need for closure is absolutely essential, but it can also be extremely dangerous.

“Nazi Germany arose in the aftermath of great uncertainty suffered by the German people. We all have the potential to become extreme. All of us has the potential to see things in black and white. That potential is hardwired in us. So why do we crave certainty so badly? The truth is, we literally could not function without out.”

What is different, is how we create certainty through decision-making. During times of uncertainty, we desire to make sense of things – to make a decision quickly. Our ancestors would have relied on this sense, this instinct, when hunting the plains, when warring with rival clans for resources. The pursuit of uncertainty – to overcome the discomfort it brings – challenged our ancestors to overcome obstacles in their evolutionary path.

As the world spirals towards mass information, and more importantly, misinformation, we seek for certainty in a complex world. The easiest way to do that, is to cling onto a certain stance – an ideology, a belief system, or an extremist view. When this complex world is made simple by an ideology, certainty is attained at the risk of a diminishing sense of humanity – the rise of fear which can quickly breed into racism, xenophobia, homophobia. What these things are, are a search for a scapegoat – a reason why people feel uncertain, and fearful. When simple answers arise for complex problems, things are sacrificed. In the video, Mr Kruglanski explains this decision-making process.

“Closure is the moment where you decide that enough information has been gathered and you are ready to make a decision. But the way we make decisions and process information changes dramatically in different circumstances.

“During times of great uncertainty everybodies need for closure increases. You feel the need to reach certainty more quickly. The need for closure tricks your mind to believe that you have the truth even though you haven’t examined the evidence very carefully.

“Sometimes you need certainty in order to act. When there is an extreme enemy that is threatening you, such as Nazi Germany, you need to fight fire with fire, you cannot fight fire with ambiguity and indecision.”

How can we tell what is the truth? How can we overcome uncertainty? There is no easy answer. That is what is so dangerous about uncertainty – when you dismiss other people’s opinions or dismiss information which is important to the decision-making process.

“That’s why we should be suspicious of our own righteousness.”

Embrace uncertainty. Perhaps we need to be mindful that an amount of trust needs to be placed in complexity because complexity can be viewed as the very thing which holds our universe together. Understanding complexity is a way to reach certainty in decision making. Ignoring complexity for what is easy or convenient is a certain path to ignorance and paying a price unforeseen.

How we deal with uncertainty is a skill which can be trained. Thinking critically, gathering information, assessing and being mindful can all aid us in approaching uncertainty.

Because certainty has a price.

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2 thoughts on “The Discomfort of Uncertainty

  1. What a great piece, Rowan. I will be mulling this over and letting the wisdom trickle in and shift my brain-stuff around a bit. Thanks for sharing.

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