Uncertainty, that silent killer
Publishing Date
August 6, 2022

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

Although it varies depending on the degree and the area in which it appears, for some people the uncertainty is unbearable. This is where it acquires its motivating character. The person who "suffers" it 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 find themselves 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 is more likely that she will 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 don't know what they are like and this can make us uneasy to some degree. Because our cognitive resources are limited, cognitive shortcuts and heuristics are a good tool to reduce it 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.

Uncertainty, from social psychology, is understood in different ways. One of them is explained 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 issue 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 conditions the ways of understanding and interpreting the world). This analysis postulates that the motivation of closure or uncertainty fulfills the essential function of stopping the relentless search for information. Once we get the desired information, we usually enjoy 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 true to reduce it. When we find it, that information that reduces 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 causes differences to appear between people, depending on the information that each one selects.

If I, in order to reduce the uncertainty caused by waiting for the results of the job interview, accept the idea that they are not going to catch me and another person accepts the idea that they are very slow in deciding 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, are going to differ.

Waiting is not one of our strengths. That is why the need for closure is so urgent for us. The possibility of the existence of different results can reduce our patience. Knowing if we have been hired or not by a company, like knowing if someone we like will answer "yes" to a date. All this plays with the probability of events. In the same way that we can benefit from a situation, we can be "harmed". Although in this case the affected concept would be synonymous with not having seen our expectations met.

An important issue is to be aware that the results can be multiple. Clinging to a concrete answer increases our uncertainty and, in this way, our suffering. Therefore, if when facing a situation we open the range of all possible results, our need for closure will be better. Despite wanting to hear one answer above the others, we will be more prepared to face whatever it has to be.


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