Back in the spring of 2020, we each got a front-row seat to the wonders of the human capacity to cope with rampant uncertainty. Within weeks, people developed wild and unhinged beliefs about the virus, health care workers, their leaders and their countries.

Some rebelled and channeled their angst outward. Crime spiked. Protests raged across the world. Others turned inward. Suicides and depression reportedly skyrocketed. Anxiety ran rampant. People became burnt out and went stir crazy.

Others distracted themselves. Video games, alcohol, and drugs surged. Anything to “take the edge off.”

Pandemics seem almost perfectly catered to prey on humanity’s greatest psychological weakness: fear of the unknown.

It’s the rare occasion when everyone’s life gets sideswiped and we are forced to sit in a vast uncertainty for an extended period of time. How deadly is the virus? We don’t know. How long will this last? No idea. Are the drastic social precautions worth it? Maybe—maybe not. Are there effective treatments? Perhaps. Also perhaps not. Is the virus influenced by the weather, by genetics, by geography? Probably, maybe, and, uh… shrug?

Looking back, what’s amazing is that almost nothing said during those first few months turned out to be true. Everyone was so wrong… yet so certain.

It’s ironic that we tend to grasp onto our beliefs the hardest when we are least likely to know if they are actually true. But, I will argue that is the point. The harder we cling to our beliefs and assumptions, the more we are protected from that yawning fear of the unknown.

And that’s what gets us into trouble.

Why Do We Fear the Unknown?

Any time we take an action with some uncertainty of outcome, we are taking a risk. You skip lunch to get work done, understanding that you may feel like a box of cat turds by mid-afternoon. You call your ex to patch things up fully knowing that you might be screaming bloody murder at each other by the third minute. You buy your friend a gift totally understanding that they may hate it.

Because there is always some uncertainty in life, there is always some risk in life. What keeps us sane when making these decisions in the face of uncertainty is being able to properly weigh the potential costs and benefits of each risk. If the uncertainty feels manageable, then we can feel okay about our decisions. “I’ve gone without lunch before, I can do it again…” and so on.

It’s when we don’t know what we’re risking—when there is so much uncertainty that we can’t even begin to calculate in our heads what we’re giving up and what we’re gaining— that we tend to shit the bed.

When there is so much uncertainty that we no longer know how risky any given choice is, then it’s like our brain short-circuits and we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

In these situations of great uncertainty, our animalistic instincts kick in and we assume the worst. After all, if there is so much uncertainty that you have no idea what to do, you might as well operate off the worst case scenario in order to protect yourself.

This is why uncertainty produces anxiety. When we have no clue what to say to someone, we assume they will laugh at us no matter what we do. When we don’t know anything about our new boss, we tend to imagine that they will be a huge bag of dicks. When we feel sick and don’t know why, we immediately assume it must be Cancer of the Everything.

Basically, our unconscious mind, when seeing that we don’t know if something is a threat or not, goes on to assume that it is. It decides, “better the devil I know than the devil I don’t.”

Photo by Kevin Jesus Horacio on Unsplash

Why Too Much Uncertainty Can Be Bad for You

When there’s uncertainty about what’s going on around us, we see our entire immediate environment as a threat.1 When we’re uncertain about what will happen in the future, we see the future itself as a threat.2 And when we’re uncertain of what’s going on with our body, we assume it’s cancer.

Learning to tolerate high amounts of uncertainty is an important skill that we must develop. If we don’t learn how to deal with uncertainty, it can affect our mental health. Anxiety and depression,3,4,5 OCD,6 and even eating disorders7 are all associated with a poor tolerance for uncertainty, a greater fear of the unknown.

But even if the fear of the unknown doesn’t lead to mental illness, it can cause us to worry way too much,8 make bad decisions with our money,9,10 perform poorly at work,11 and generally just make us miserable to be around.

And when the fear of the unknown spreads throughout an entire culture, people tend to resort to dogmatism and authoritarianism.12 Cultures who fear the unknown and crave more certainty tend to be more corrupt, less tolerant of dissenting ideas, and less trusting than cultures who are more comfortable with uncertainty.13 Basically, if an entire society collectively fears the unknown, they will defer to authority and not rock the boat.

Many people would rather be subject to an all-powerful figure or institution than risk the unknown if that figure or entity promises to provide more certainty in their lives, even if the reality of that certainty is kind of awful.

Again, it’s the devil you know.

And that devil lives between your ears.

But… Certainty Is an Illusion

There are few certainties in life. Maybe none.14 Because of this, we spend so much of our time and energy constructing expectations around what’s going to happen. We build calendars, create schedules, make appointments, generate habits and routines, set guidelines and goals, follow rules, all in a constant effort to battle back that sense of uncertainty.

But sometimes this desire for order goes too far. Just like governments and institutions can conjure the illusion of stability by oppressing their citizens, your own mind can be deluded into certainty by rigidly chaining itself to inflexible beliefs and routines.

When a global pandemic was thrust upon the world, the uncertainty of it caused a collective shit-spasm everywhere and people (understandably) freaked out.

But it didn’t take long for a lot of people to become “certain” that they knew what was going on. Some saw it as little more than a “bad flu” while others believed the world was about to change forever, if not end all together! Conspiracy theories proliferated at an astonishing rate and just kept getting more and more ridiculous as time passed.

The truth was—and still is—we just don’t know what the fuck is going on.

But most people can’t just sit with uncertainty. And so the way most people deal with this fear of not knowing is by imagining certainty. The anxiety of it all is just too much to bear, so we’ll gladly trade it for delusional certitude, no matter how ignorantly we came about it.

Uncertainty - paddle boarder on open water
Photo by Kirk Wheeler on Unsplash

And yet, that doesn’t change the fact that just because you feel certain about something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Actually knowing something is true and the feeling of knowing something is true are two different things, and one can occur without the other.15

To be healthy and happy, we have to strike a sweet spot. We have to admit that there’s some uncertainty in the world, because that is what will keep us open to change, allow us to learn, and help us adapt to challenges. But, at the same time, we need to feel some degree of certainty as well, so that we can feel a sense of security and at least pretend we know what we’re doing. The question is, where is that balance?

How to Live with Uncertainty in Your Life

At least some degree of tolerance for uncertainty is required to grow and thrive in the world.

So how do you sit with uncertainty? How to face the fear of the unknown?

1. Get Good at Feeling Bad

A central tenet of my philosophy is that the more we avoid negative emotions, the more those emotions will paradoxically screw us over at some point.

Ignoring the fact that you’re angry only causes that anger to well up and then explode at some inopportune moment.

Ignoring the resentment you harbor for your parents and pretending everything is fine between you only festers over time and puts a strain on your relationship that can last for years, if not your entire life.

And ignoring the anxiety and discomfort you feel in the face of uncertainty only makes your anxiety about uncertainty worse.

There’s some interesting research that links mobile phone usage with increased anxiety towards uncertainty.16 It’s correlational data at this point, so we can’t make any strong causal claims, but the idea behind it makes sense.

The theory goes that when you engage in this type of escapism by burying your face in your phone, you’re reducing your exposure to everyday uncertainty. And when you don’t have experience dealing with everyday uncertainty in your life, each subsequent uncertainty becomes that much more difficult to handle.

It’s like if you were never exposed to any germs of any kind, your immune system would never be able fight off any infections because it never “learned” how to fight off any infections.

Make yourself more resilient towards uncertainty… by sitting with uncertainty.

2. Build Habits and Routines

Dealing with uncertainty of the unknown is a lot easier when you exert agency over the parts of your life you can control. One way this happens is that building habits and routines in the most important areas of your life can counterbalance the uncertainty we feel by providing some stability.

Again, stability is not the same as certainty. A person, group, or even society might be able to absorb more uncertainty, which ultimately makes them more robust and stable. But being robust and stable is no guarantee of the certainty of your robustness and stability.

I’d say the real benefit is that building healthy habits brings you face-to-face with what you can and cannot control in your life. This, in turn, makes you more comfortable with uncertainty.

For example, virtually all the habit research out there suggests that your willpower is far less important than your environment when creating and maintaining healthy habits.

So you can’t really control when you’re going to crave cake and ice cream, but you can control what you buy at the grocery store. If you skip the junk food and instead keep a stash of healthy snacks in the fridge, you’re far, far less likely to pig out on cake and ice cream in those inevitable moments of weakness.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking that has a huge impact: you have very little control over how you’re going to feel at any given moment, but you have a lot of control over the environment in which those feelings will occur. So focus on creating the best environment for yourself.

Once your thinking shifts to this, you’ll start to say to yourself, “Okay, I can’t control X, but what can I do to make the best possible outcome more likely to happen?”

Over time, you’ll start to accept uncertainty as just another part of life because you’ll begin to see that “not knowing” isn’t a dead end, that you have control over some things even if you don’t over others.

Another example: I can never be certain that I’ll be in peak creative form whenever I sit down to write something.

But I can control whether or not I show up, sit my ass down, and start writing. The muse may or may not strike me on any given day. I can’t control that.

I might only have a 30%-40% chance of producing something worth reading on any given day, but that drops to 0% if I don’t show up at all (I guess we can be certain of that).

So when I have a shit day of writing, I’m not too bothered by the uncertainty of it—of thinking that I might not ever write anything worth reading again—because I know that as long as I continue to show up and do the work, something good will eventually come of it.

And speaking of writing…

3. Get Creative

Being more tolerant of uncertainty is linked with being more creative.17,18 It’s not clear if tolerating uncertainty makes you more creative or if being creative makes you tolerate more uncertainty, but I would guess it’s almost certainly a two-way street.

When you’re creating something new—even if it’s only new to you—you have to face the uncertainty of not knowing how it will turn out. More creative people are probably more comfortable with uncertainty to begin with, but I’d argue it works in reverse too: their exposure to more uncertainty also makes them more creative as well.

I’m facing the unknown every time I sit down to write. That gives me direct experience with uncertainty every day.

Then, once my ass is in the chair and I’m writing, I’m diving deeper into the unknown. I’m saying, “Hey, there’s something here I’ve never seen/felt/experienced. I wonder what that’s about…” and I follow it.

Opportunity in the Unknown

We live in a weird time where we have more information than ever before. Yet that information is confusing and often causes more uncertainty.

You would think having access to anything you could ever want to know would make us more certain. But the problem is that for everything you find that could be true, there are three people saying it’s not true.

Therefore, this constant need to cope with uncertainty is strangely a 21st-century problem. The greater the number of opportunities and the greater the rate of social change, the more confusion and uncertainty that arises.

That’s why it’s more important than ever before to get good at sustaining and tolerating the fear of the unknown.

Cover image by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Footnotes

  1. Tanaka, Y., Fujino, J., Ideno, T., Okubo, S., Takemura, K., Miyata, J., Kawada, R., Fujimoto, S., Kubota, M., Sasamoto, A., Hirose, K., Takeuchi, H., Fukuyama, H., Murai, T., & Takahashi, H. (2015). Are ambiguity aversion and ambiguity intolerance identical? A neuroeconomics investigation. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
  2. Buhr, K., & Dugas, M. J. (2009). The role of fear of anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty in worry: An experimental manipulation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(3), 215–223.
  3. Gentes, E. L., & Ruscio, A. M. (2011). A meta-analysis of the relation of intolerance of uncertainty to symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and obsessive–compulsive disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 923–933. 
  4. Carleton, R. N., Mulvogue, M. K., Thibodeau, M. A., McCabe, R. E., Antony, M. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2012). Increasingly certain about uncertainty: Intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(3), 468–479.
  5. Andersen, S. M., & Schwartz, A. H. (1992). Intolerance of Ambiguity and Depression: A Cognitive Vulnerability Factor Linked to Hopelessness. Social Cognition, 10(3), 271–298.
  6. Tolin, D. F., Abramowitz, J. S., Brigidi, B. D., & Foa, E. B. (2003). Intolerance of uncertainty in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 17(2), 233–242.
  7. Brown, M., Robinson, L., Campione, G. C., Wuensch, K., Hildebrandt, T., & Micali, N. (2017). Intolerance of Uncertainty in Eating Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 25(5), 329–343.
  8. Dugas, M. J., Freeston, M. H., & Ladouceur, R. (1997). Intolerance of Uncertainty and Problem Orientation in Worry. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 21(6), 593–606.
  9. Bossaerts, P., Ghirardato, P., Guarnaschelli, S., & Zame, W. R. (2010). Ambiguity in Asset Markets: Theory and Experiment. Review of Financial Studies, 23(4), 1325–1359.
  10. Mukerji, S., & Tallon, J.-M. (2001). Ambiguity Aversion and Incompleteness of Financial Markets. The Review of Economic Studies, 68(4), 883–904.
  11. Frone, M. R. (1990). Intolerance of Ambiguity as a Moderator of the Occupational Role Stress-Strain Relationship: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 11(4), 309–320.
  12. Stanley Budner, N. Y. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30(1), 29–50.
  13. Rapp, J. K., Bernardi, R. A., & Bosco, S. M. (2010). Examining The Use Of Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance Construct In International Research: A 25-Year Review. International Business Research, 4(1), p3.
  14. Well, OK: death and taxes. Fine.
  15. I talked about this in this article. Your brain has completely independent processes for “knowing” and “feeling like you know”—and each of functions independently of logic and reason. See Dr. Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.
  16. Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: The potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 48(2), 121–136.
  17. Merrotsy, P. (2013). Tolerance of Ambiguity: A Trait of the Creative Personality? Creativity Research Journal, 25(2), 232–237.
  18. Zenasni, F., Besançon, M., & Lubart, T. (2008). Creativity and Tolerance of Ambiguity: An Empirical Study. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 42(1), 61–73.