Uncertainty: Why It Affects Our Decisions More Than We Think

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Uncertainty haunts every decision-maker.

In truth, it is as Marty Rubin says: "We're all bewildered, but most bewildered of all are those who think they know the truth."

Uncertainty doesn't just bewilder us, it terrifies us. As a result, we deny it, we lie about it, and we bluff our way through it. In fact, we will do almost anything to avoid having to accept the future is uncertain.

Our behaviour makes it all much worse.

When we discover uncertainty, we cannot help but notice it. We push it to the forefront of our minds and we become overwhelmed by the possibilities and implications of not knowing.

As a result, our decision-making process becomes greatly influenced by this uncertainty. We change our behaviour, our choices and even our own beliefs in an attempt to fill in the gaps.

Our responses are rarely positive ones.

Given our knowledge of uncertainty, why does it affect our decisions more than we think — and more importantly, what can we do about it?

The perception of control

We are control freaks.

Certainty is a desire to be bottled and sold—if only you could. Of course, we would queue for hours to get such control in our lives.

Joking aside, this desire for control—for certainty—is why we loath the insecurity of the unknown.

The control we have over certain aspects of our lives gives us a false sense of confidence. Choice, such as the schedule on our tv planners, or even the rising and setting of the sun don’t give us control but give us the illusion of control. Of course, we embrace the deception. Our minds seize upon the certainty as other biases fight to convince us we’re in control.

But, we’re not.

And uncertainty is never far away. The perception of control brings us false confidence when making decisions. We fool ourselves into thinking incomplete information is complete. Decisions become binary as we make commitments we shouldn’t.

If this was the only downside of uncertainty, it wouldn’t be so bad, but just as it breeds overconfidence, so it can shatter it too.

Anxiety from an unclear future

Have you ever felt that you're certain about a decision, only to second-guess yourself later? Or did you once decide on something, but then change your mind?

In both cases, uncertainty played a role in your decision-making process.

We don't always realize how much uncertainty affects our decisions because it's such an abstract concept. But uncertainty is a bigger part of our lives than we think.

At its root, uncertainty is about not knowing what's going to happen next. It's about being unsure of the future — and the present isn't much clearer. Uncertainty is uncomfortable; we try to minimize it in different ways. Sometimes, we choose to ignore it altogether. Sometimes we avoid situations that are uncertain or risky. And sometimes we let our emotions guide us as we make decisions under uncertainty.

Because uncertainty is invisible, we often neglect to plan for it as we make decisions. And that can lead to regret later on. We think we're making rational decisions when, in reality, our emotions are driving us to make choices we wouldn't necessarily make if we knew the future was certain. That's why it's important to acknowledge uncertainty and take steps to reduce it whenever possible.

Feelings from the unknown

The first question we should ask ourselves if we want to be better at dealing with uncertainty, is why is it that we hate uncertainty so much? Or more specifically what are some of the common consequences of uncertainty.

The most common one I see is fear.

When in an uncertain situation we feel scared because we don’t know what might happen if we make the wrong decision. Fear manifests itself through anxiety, which, in some can become crippling. The downside of anxiety is indecision, where no decision is made.

Then there's stress. We’re often stressed because time tends to be a factor when dealing with uncertainty as well as other factors such as other people involved.

Lastly, there is pressure. Unresolved uncertainty will often build up and make us feel pressured to do something about it.

These feelings are a consequence of how we see uncertainty. We are easily bewildered by how we think about uncertainty when making decisions.

The complexity of uncertainty

I don't know if you have ever heard of the Uncertainty Principle, but this principle is proven to be true in many experiments.

It states that it is impossible to measure both the position and the velocity (direction) of a particle with arbitrary precision. The more precisely one measures one property, the less precisely one can measure the other.

The same principle applies to our decision-making skills.

Our brains are energy hogs, taking up 20% of all the calories we burn every day. This energy then goes into processing every decision we make in our lives. If decisions were not so precious and scarce, we would find ourselves wasting a lot less time trying to decide what to do or how to feel about things.

But decisions aren't always so easy to make.

Just because we want something doesn't mean we can have it, and just because we want something doesn't mean we will enjoy having it when we get it. In fact, most of us haven't realized that what we desire is not always what will make us happy at all—the grass isn't really greener on the other side of the fence.

Moving forward with uncertainty

I’ve read many articles on the topic of uncertainty, and nearly all focus on convincing us of its existence.

Why?

In truth, it is because we are so easily able to fool ourselves.

The title says it all: Uncertainty: Why It Affects Our Decisions More Than We Think. I’m arguing this unseen element of the second law of thermodynamics hugely impacts us. But, here is the thing everyone misses.

Uncertainty only becomes certain in the outcome of our decisions.

When we decide; when we are at the moment of decision, we can factor in uncertainty. We can apply some critical thinking questions to our decision-making process, and consider the impact of what we don’t know. Questions offer us the chance to consider outcomes—and also the likelihood of them occurring. Probabilistic thinking pushes us to weigh up how likely the desired outcome is to happen.

You could call it thinking in bets.

Faced with a decision and the outcome you want, would you bet £1,000 against it happening? A process like this changes the way you consider all aspects of your decision. Now, information is more accurately assessed. You start to look for facts over opinions, as well as consider alternative choices where you would bet the £1,000.

The point is this.

Uncertainty is a given. The power of entropy is a given, as my family discovered. So, embrace it, bet with it—and understand how you decide is different from the outcome you end up with.

Concluding thoughts

Don't run from uncertainty.

It's beyond reasonable to assume that it will always be present in our lives. Furthermore. it’s clear it will influence the decisions we make from now until the end of time.

And it means we must accept uncertainty to improve our decision-making.

Ignoring uncertainty only leads to poor decisions. Consider how often you make a choice because of the outcome you want, rather than how likely it is to happen. There is no thought to the impact of uncertainty. Uncertainty slides into incomplete information, opinions and the future.

Considering the likelihood of an outcome means you beginning to embrace uncertainty. The paradox of this is you end up giving yourself more control over future outcomes. This should give you some comfort to improve upon where you stand today.

Image credit: Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

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