We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.
We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.
There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.
Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling
One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if the uncertainty of what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.
Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!
High Stakes Plus Lack of Control
Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.
I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.
What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?
One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.
Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action
But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.
It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.
We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.
I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.
If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.