Uncertainty, That Silent Killer

The uncertainty is related to that need we have to know what is going to happen next, so that we can anticipate it, we can control it and we are not caught off guard. Uncertainty is understood as a human motivation. Specifically, one that encourages us, for example, to confirm that what we think or what our senses tell us is true.

Although it varies depending on the degree and scope in which it appears, for some people the uncertainty is unbearable. This is where it acquires its motivating character. The person who “suffers” has to act to reduce it, at least until it is at acceptable levels.

There are people who tolerate uncertainty better than others. People who are in a situation of great uncertainty dedicate a lot of cognitive resources to solve it and more if their tolerance is low. Two people may have gone to a job interview with the same needs. However, if one of them has a low tolerance for uncertainty, it will most likely try to get the result as soon as possible. Thus, for example, she will not wait for the company to contact her: she will be the one to do so.

On the other hand, uncertainty can also appear when we meet a person: we do not know what they are like and this can disturb us to some degree. Because our cognitive resources are limited, cognitive shortcuts and heuristics are a good tool to narrow it down quickly. These ways of reducing uncertainty are effective, but they also have negative consequences. For example, the stereotyping of people or the appearance of prejudices that arise when comparing ourselves with other people or groups.

Triggers of uncertainty

Some of the causes that generate this uncertainty are listed below. Maybe you feel identified in some of them!

  • One source of uncertainty is the contradiction between expectations and the signals that reality provides. Let’s imagine that we have done the interview we talked about before and it turned out very well, so we leave there thinking that the position is ours. However, days go by and they do not call us, a common indicator that the position will not belong to the interviewee. Thus, if we combine the security with which we left and the contradictory signal, it is usual for this feeling of uncertainty to grow.
  • Another source of uncertainty arises from contrasting behavior with values. When we perform behaviors with which we do not agree, our uncertainty increases. Returning to the example of the job interview, if by necessity we go to an interview in which the job offered does not correspond to the beliefs we have, our uncertainty will also increase. A case of this type that is reflected very well in the cinema is when an attorney who defends the environment begins to work for a company that damages the environment. These behaviors can create states of anxious uncertainty in addition to cognitive dissonance.
  • Social injustice also appears as an element that produces a certain degree of uncertainty.  The injustices that we live day by day and that we see other people suffer can generate uncertainty if we are not able to solve them. The lack of control over these injustices makes us doubt our ability to predict the future. Faced with this situation, a certain attraction to extreme ideologies and groups that promise to end these injustices usually appears.

Uncertainty from social psychology

Uncertainty, from social psychology, is understood in different ways. One of them is explaining it as a need for cognitive closure. This need for (cognitive) closure can be defined as the desire to give a quick answer to a question or question that has confusing and ambiguous content.  In this way, if cognitive closure does not occur, we enter a state of anxiety until we get no response.

The theory of the need for closure is based on an epistemic analysis (set of knowledge that determines the ways of understanding and interpreting the world). This analysis postulates that the motivation of closure or uncertainty satisfies the essential function of stopping the incessant search for information. Once we obtain the desired information, we usually have peace of mind. Both mental and physical energy resources are reduced and we are no longer victims of the incessant and uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty.

Thus, when we feel uncertainty, we try to find information that we consider to be true to reduce it. When we find it, that information that reduced uncertainty becomes indispensable knowledge for daily life. The need for cognitive closure seeks the crystallization and simplification of self-knowledge. This search for information that generates knowledge makes differences appear between people, depending on the information that each one selects.

If I, to reduce the uncertainty that awaiting the results of the job interview produces, I accept the idea that they will not catch me and another person accepts the idea that they are very slow in the decisions about who to accept, We will have very different and simplistic ideas about how that company works. Our expectations, as the days go by without knowing the result, will be differentiated.

The role of our expectations and the need for closure

That knowledge that we form about the operation of the company can also vary. Even people with a high need for closure can, in some circumstances, be (temporarily) open-minded while seeking cognitive closure.  In this case, our expectations about what may happen will help us to readjust our thoughts towards what may happen.

If we later go to another company to do an interview, we will probably tell those responsible that we are in a hurry to know the decision. If the same thing happens again, and they take a long time to respond, we will have uncertainty again and, again, we will try to reduce it.

On this occasion, our interpretation that they are not going to hire us does not serve us because they should have already communicated it to us. The need for closure will cause us to enter a state of “urgency” and seek another plausible interpretation as quickly as possible. For example, that the company has accepted us and we have passed the interview phase.

Once cognitive closure is achieved, people with a high need for closure tend to “stay” in their judgments and become impervious to new information. The new idea about company behavior is more resilient than the first and we will no longer change it until new information contradicts it, such as confirmation that we have not been accepted.

What happens when the need for closure is high?

The need for cognitive closure, once awakened, can affect a wide range of group phenomena.  The function of the need for closure is to create a coherent shared reality with a group. If the knowledge that our group brings us does not reduce our need, we will look for another group to do so.

Those who need cognitive closure are also more concerned with reducing uncertainty quickly than doing it correctly. Those with a high need for closure form impressions more quickly and with more limited evidence. They tend to base their judgments on common stereotypes and exhibit biases such as fundamental attribution error. They also look for fewer alternatives when solving problems. They are less empathetic with those who think differently and fail to adapt their language when they have to explain their thoughts to other people.

Those with a high need for closure overcome uncertainty by accepting the first information they obtain to draw conclusions. Subsequently, they unquestionably accept that conclusion. These people seek orderly, predictable, and familiar social context.

The beliefs and social norms shared by the members of a group give certainty about what the world is like, what to do in different situations, who they are and why they are important. Therefore, the groups provide the contexts sought by these people as well as being the greatest source of certainty and knowledge for them.

Open ourselves to possibilities

Waiting is not one of our strengths. That is why the need for closure is so compelling to us. The possibility of the existence of different results can drain our patience. Know if we have been hired or not by a company, how to know if someone we like will answer “yes” to an appointment. All this plays with the probability of the events. In the same way that we can benefit from a situation, we can “lose out”. Although in this case the damaged concept would be synonymous with not having seen our expectations met.

An important issue is to become aware that the results can be multiple. Clinging to a specific answer increases our uncertainty and, thus, our suffering. Therefore, if when faced with a situation we open the range of all possible results, our need for closure will be better. Despite wanting to hear an answer above the others, we will be more prepared to face what has to be.