Uncertainty Makes Us Change Our Behavior

Uncertainty motivates people to change behaviors, even when that change may not provide a better outcome. People feel a need to take some action in the face of uncertainty.

In a Journal of Experimental Psychology study, researchers found “that unexpected uncertainty caused people to change their behaviors even when they would have been better off sticking to an old strategy.” They explain the trade-off describes how people often have to choose between a known positive alternative and one or more unknown but potentially greater alternatives. They also discuss the prevailing theory of human behavior, which states that uncertainty is responsible for much of this decision-making: as environmental conditions become less certain, those decisions tend towards higher levels of risk-taking or exploration. 

« People can prepare for unexpected uncertainty by approaching each moment and day with the idea it is always uncertain, and intentionally practicing for unexpected moments, » notes Amy Stone, a certified life coach at AmySaysSo

Stone illustrates this by explaining how we tend to take a common route to a frequent destination. Stone explains, “When your common route is blocked for any reason, you can react in one of two ways. You could view the situation as a problem and get stressed by attempting to find a solution, or view it as an opportunity to try something new and overcome challenges instead. In life, it’s expected that something will happen without a warning, and we’ll have to adapt quickly to make the best decisions possible.”

Brittany Ferri, a Medical Advisor at the Medical Solutions BCN, believes the easiest way to guard against this is to remind yourself of the positive outcomes of your daily routine. She explains that routines provide comfort and reassurance through tough times, and help us establish healthy habits in our life. « By having coping mechanisms and enjoyable activities to keep us level-headed during these times, we can better stick to our routines purposefully, » added Ferri. 

Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass, says the best way to guard against this is mindfulness. He notes being mindful means being in the moment. The practice of mindfulness is about recognizing bodily sensations, both physical and mental, to gain awareness of your surroundings. He also talks about spending time in nature and how helpful it can be. « Visit your local campground and practice mindfulness to assist your future needs, » he recommends. 

« Humans are naturally wired to avoid uncertainty, » explains Kathryn  Kathryn McDavid, CEO of Editor’s Pick. She believes people should not fear change, because the only thing that can be controlled is how they react to it. Change-induced anxiety comes from insufficient comfort with changes, and if people are less comfortable with change, there will also be more fear. « The most beneficial thing you can do for yourself is learn to be comfortable with change and not being in control, » she adds. She stressed that accepting what you cannot control is the key to processing a demanding situation. 

Martha Horta-Granados, a psychologist and consultant at Sensible Digs, says the best way to avoid unexpected uncertainty is to be confident in your decision. She says for some, it could be a challenge to make the right decision, and lists techniques that can be helpful. She explains writing down the pros and cons of that decision, or assigning a numerical value to each aspect of a specific decision, and adding it all up at the end. She notes you might still question the decision you made. However, she encourages people to « keep in mind you have carried out an analysis, and the option you chose represents your effort, time, analytical, and decision-making skills, so you should be proud of it, » she adds. 

Michelle Davies, editor-in-chief at TheBestEverGuideToLife, says most mental health problems often stem from uncertainty. She says uncertainty is scary, mainly because humans tend to think of the worst-case scenario that could happen. She says if we focus on the negative possibilities, it can actually hinder our progress. « Learn to expect uncertainty and funnel your energy into positive what-ifs, » she suggests. 

There’s consensus that acceptance and mindfulness are beneficial ways to handle unexpected uncertainty.  There are also clear benefits in acknowledging uncertainty as part of life, and not always living in fear of it.  

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