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The World Is Ambiguous. Embrace It.

Our natural instinctive impulses motivate us and keep us alive. Here are the big three: Food. Sex. Certainty.

Yes, certainty. Having a feeling of certainty about our beliefs and knowledge (or what we think we know) was vital to our survival in the wild. Certainty allows us to act more quickly and decisively, which is key to living successfully in a dangerous environment.

The human brain delivers impulses and biases that drive us to feel certainty even when we are, in reality, far less than certain.

It perceives uncertainty as painful, while certainty is pleasurable (thanks, dopamine!)

We are compelled toward confirmation bias, where we consume or seek out only the information that aligns with what we think we know.

We also have a bias for familiarity - the more time, attention, and focus we give to a thought, the more likely we are to feel certain about it.

The impulse for certainty is one reason people enjoy crossword puzzles, Sudoku (my favorite), and even coloring pages. At the beginning, the empty page feels incomplete and compels us to find answers. Completing the puzzle brings the pleasure of certainty, as well as a sense of accomplishment.

The future is a big void of uncertainty, driving many of us to hire people who can supposedly reduce the uncertainty. Fortune tellers. Horoscopes. Stock market analysts.

In fact, there is very little certainty in the world. A favorite phrase of politicians is, “In these uncertain times…” They want us to feel like we are on shaky ground and that only their bold leadership will get us to the happy place of certainty. The truth is that ALL times are uncertain - and whatever time you are currently living in feels like the most uncertain of all.

As Dr. Steven Stosny wrote in Psychology Today: “Intolerance of ambiguity is a damaging affliction of those who feel certain in our ambiguous world.”

We assign two values to every piece of information we consider: #1) true or not true, #2) level of certainty about #1. Once you decide if something is true or not, even if it is just an assumption, the level of certainty starts to go up and continues over time.

Approaches for handling uncertainty and false certainty

To overcome the certainty bias, we first need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Embrace uncertainty. As poker champion Annie Dukes writes in her book, Thinking in Bets, “You should wrap your arms around [uncertainty] and give it a big ol’ hug.”

Neuroscientist Robert Burton suggests in his book, On Being Certain, that when you feel certainty - stop. Take a moment before you express that level of certainty. Couch your language if it is a better reflection of how certain you may or may not be. Words and phrases like, “perhaps,” “it is likely that,” “I think” or even “I don’t know.” This will make you gain, not lose, credibility.

To go one step further we can mentally assign a probability range to any idea as to its validity. And not just to new information, but even to beliefs and knowledge we already have, especially those we feel most certain about and that have the biggest potential impact.

Another approach is recommended by Stosny: Consider evidence against your own assumptions and opinions. That can illuminate blind spots and help you escape certainty.

We are aware of our drives for food and sex and we put limits on ourselves (hopefully) to avoid overundulgence. We need to keep our drive for certainty ini check as well.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Mind performance strategist

Want to learn more about improving your decision making and performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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