science of us

How to Be Better at Uncertainty

Photo: Anna Fotyma/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class, you’ve probably heard of the Socratic paradox: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” It advocates for the benefits of uncertainty, a point of view that happens to be backed by modern psychological science, too. Namely, uncertainty “improves our decisions, promotes empathy, and boosts creativity,” says Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America and author of the book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. Likewise, a 2014 study suggests that uncertainty can also be motivating. A little uncertainty is good for you.

And yet ambiguity is frustrating. As humans, we’re wired for cognitive closure, a desire for firm answers and “an aversion toward ambiguity,” as social psychologist Arie Kruglanski put it. Uncertainty can create cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding two contradictory thoughts, opinions, or beliefs. Ironically, though, not being able to deal with uncertainty can be equally distressing. An intolerance of uncertainty is linked to anxiety and depression. So how do you get better at tolerating it? Start with the following tips. (Maybe they’ll work! Maybe they won’t. Who can be certain?)

First, test your tolerance.

Find out how bad (or good!) you are at handling uncertainty in the first place. This Science of Us uncertainty quiz is based on Kruglanski’s Need for (Cognitive) Closure Scale (NFCS). Kruglanski defined cognitive closure as “an answer on a given topic, any answer … compared to confusion and ambiguity.” In other words, with cognitive closure, you prefer the certainty of an answer, even if it’s wrong, over the ambiguity of not knowing.

You can also see how well you relate to statements taken directly from the NFCS. Here are several of them, with specific traits of closure in parentheses:

• I don’t like to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it. (Desire for predictability)
• I think that having clear rules and order at work is essential for success. (Preference for order and structure)
• I’d rather know bad news than stay in a state of uncertainty. (Discomfort with ambiguity)
• I usually make important decisions quickly and confidently. (Decisiveness)
• I do not usually consult many different opinions before forming my own view. (Closed-mindedness)

Depending on which of these statements ring true for you, your solution to tolerating uncertainty might be hiding in plain sight. For example, if you have a strong “desire for predictability,” try going into a situation without knowing what you can expect from it. In practice, this might mean throwing out the itinerary for your upcoming vacation. If you don’t usually “consult many different opinions before forming your own view,” next time you read an opinion piece, read an opposing opinion piece on the same topic.

Know when you’re more likely to crave certainty.

There are certain times you might be extra susceptible to certainty, Holmes suggests. “Our need for closure is heightened when we’re rushed, bored, tired, or tipsy,” he said. So when you’re feeling any of those things, or maybe all of them, be aware that you might be prone to cognitive closure at that time.

Your desire for certainty probably also varies depending on the situation. You might be anxious over your bank account, for instance, but you don’t really care how you did on your performance review. Pinpoint these concerns, then avoid what Michel Dugas, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, calls “certainty seeking behavior.”

In an interview with Dugas, The Atlantic explained: “Individuals also differ on what types of uncertainty bother them most. For a businesswoman who can’t stop checking the stock market, Dugas says he might have her start checking just once a day, then every other day, and so on. For parents who worry over the uncertainty of their kids’ grades, he’d have them slowly back off double-checking homework.”

Of course, it would be irresponsible to suggest that you never check your bank account or worry about your kids’ grades. The idea isn’t to avoid these habits completely. You might have reason for anxiety at that point: you overdraw your accounts or your kid fails his math test. The goal, Dugas says, is to experience a bit of uncertainty and tolerate it even though it’s uncomfortable.

So try backing off just a little, it doesn’t have to be completely. And if there’s a mindless “certainty seeking” habit you obsess over, like checking your email every five minutes,  start there. Try to make it an hour without checking your email instead of five minutes. You could even (gasp!) delete your email app from your phone so you’re not tempted to engage in that habit to begin with. Especially if you rely on your email for work, it might be a little unsettling to go without it for a long period of time. But that’s the idea: get used to what it feels like to be unsettled.

Read more novels.

A study from the University of Chicago found that subjects were more excited and motivated about a task when the reward for that task was unknown. “Think, for example, about that claw grabber arcade machine — it’s the excitement about what one will win more than the toy itself,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study. It sounds pro-uncertainty, right?

But, then again, “at times uncertainty is too large — people don’t think they stand a chance and give up,” Fishbach added. In other words, you may not want to overwhelm yourself with too much uncertainty because you may just shut down completely. A great way to embrace uncertainty, a little at a time, is through novelty. Put simply, try new things.

“Two ways to get comfortable with uncertainty, perhaps surprisingly, are reading fiction and multicultural experiences,” Holmes says. “Make reading short stories or novels a habit. Likely because it invites us inside the worlds and minds of characters unlike ourselves, fiction makes ‘otherness’ less threatening.” He adds that both fiction and multicultural experiences not only lower our need for closure and help us make better decisions, but they also make us more empathetic. Research, like this 2010 study, shows that multicultural experiences fuel creativity, too.

Travel, reading, learning a new language, experiencing another culture — these all present new experiences to your brain, which force you outside of your comfort zone in rewarding ways. Also: They are fun. Sounds like a pretty certain win-win.

How to Be Better at Uncertainty