Hello, Uncertainty, My Old Friend

12 May 2020 Comments Off on Hello, Uncertainty, My Old Friend

BY ŞEBNEM TÜRE (PSYC/II) sebnem.ture@ug.bilkent.edu.tr

Somewhere or other, you’ve probably come across those “there are two kinds of people” groupings. Let me offer another one: people who enjoy uncertainty and the mystery that it brings, and people who run away from it – or at least try to run away from it.

I remember, years ago, being part of a group of kids standing in front of the cinema, debating whether or not to go to the new Spiderwick movie. Even then, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about mystery films, or thrillers and crime novels either. But when you’re a child, you’re exposed to fiction like Spiderwick so much that it becomes pretty popular among your peers. Many of my friends actually liked mystery. Bowing to conformity, after we got out of the cinema that day I faked it to my friends about how I kind of enjoyed the movie too. (A thing I still do from time to time; herd mentality, what a shame.)

Psychology says that especially in some contexts, people may find uncertainty really attractive. This is kind of the case when you’ve just met someone; since you don’t really know your future with them, it’s like you can’t wait to learn more about that person and about where your relationship with them may go. The unknown can be really exciting. Moreover, uncertainty-inducing activities like the kids-going-to-a-movie example I mentioned above are also attractive to a lot of people. Watching sports, gambling, participating in competitions, commenting on social media giveaways: none of the above are really enjoyable if you take the uncertainty factor away.

On the other hand, studies show that people may avoid uncertainty at any cost, especially in financial decision making. One very famous experiment by Kahneman and Tversky found that when given a choice between getting $1,000 with 100 percent certainty or having a 50 percent chance of getting $2,500, most people went for the certain option.

As I said, the inclination to embrace or avoid uncertainty varies from person to person, and also from context to context.

Being uncertain is fundamentally a metacognitive state, which means that it includes an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, in this case especially of one’s ignorance. But it’s also very different from simple ignorance, because in the case of uncertainty, you actually know that you don’t know. To me, this awareness can be really uncomfortable at times. I wish I’d never known about the existence of the unknown. It would be so much easier that way.

Not so long ago, I met someone I felt really connected to and from whom I actually got the inspiration to write about uncertainty. He told me how he was considering options to extend his time as a student here at Bilkent, since his future after graduation appears completely uncertain to him. “I’ve never been very much into the uncertain,” he said – which, you can probably guess by now, is an attitude I could relate to. I know that some of you who are reading this can probably relate to it as well.

As they taught us in middle school, any measurement will never be totally perfect and the actual value of anything will always include some degree of uncertainty. You can’t escape from the unknown in life. It’s part of everything, everywhere, at all times. Like that math problem, all of your plans will always include an uncertainty in the measurement. You make plans, and each time, life persists in surprising you. Or, you try as hard as you can to put off making plans, like that friend of mine; that’s the other option.

Here are two things to consider:

First, we’re too young to be certain about everything. And we’re too young not to be afraid of the unknown sometimes, especially when we consider the crazy rush toward a career that we seem to be compelled to make. (Hello, seniors.)

The second is that at one point or another, we should somehow learn to make peace with uncertainty. Which meshes with the first point, because knowing that you can’t always be certain may help you in doing that. When you know that it’s normal to be overwhelmed by the uncertain sometimes, and that so many people so often have similar feelings, uncertainty can show you its friendly face. It appears as a companion who walks with you throughout life, and it may even remind you that most of the time there is nothing you can do but live in the moment.