How to cope with uncertainty

The only certainty right now is that the uncertainty is set to continue. This is uncomfortable news for everyone ‒ according to Harvard professor Jerry Kagan, the desire to reduce uncertainty is one of three primary motives that drive cognitive development, alongside the urge to decrease hostility and increase mastery.

Some of us, however, are finding it easier than others to tolerate the current state of affairs. Why?

Personality makes a difference. Nicholas Carleton at the University of Regina in Canada has established a strong correlation between the inability to tolerate uncertainty and neuroticism ‒ the tendency to become easily anxious, frustrated or angry and to experience self-doubt and low mood. Jacob Hirsh and Michael Inzlicht at the University of Toronto gave undergraduates positive, negative or uncertain feedback about how well they were performing on an estimation task. For those who scored high on neuroticism, uncertain feedback created more distress than did certain feedback, even when the explicit feedback was negative.

Uncertainty intensifies our emotional response to events. Yoav Bar-Anan at the University of Virginia showed undergraduates positive and negative film clips. Some were told beforehand they would see either positive or negative content, while others were not given any initial information. Afterwards, everyone rated the intensity of their emotional response to what they’d seen. Those who hadn’t known what to expect experienced much stronger reactions than those who were prepared, and this was true whether the film content was positive or negative.

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