Uncertainty about Uncertainty


Uncertainty doesn't have to be a bad thing, but many say they'd rather know there were definitely problems coming, rather than be uncertain about whether there were or not. What do you prefer? Do you spend valuable time trying to prevent uncertainty?

A few years ago, I read an article by Daniel Gilbert called “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous.” Gilbert is a Harvard University professor of psychology and author of the superb book, “Stumbling on Happiness.” When I read the article, I agreed with most of his points. Now, I’m wondering about possible exceptions.

The gist of the article is that people tend to be more content knowing the worst case scenario than facing the uncertainty of not knowing. According to research Gilbert cites, uncertainty about a possible unwanted outcome upsets people more than certainty about that very same outcome. It’s the not knowing, he maintains, that drives people crazy. However, when people know what the situation is – even if it’s bad news – they may agitate over it, but then they come to terms with it, deal with it, and get on with their lives.

According to Gilbert, people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Thus, people who have faced the most undesirable life circumstances and made peace with their situation often report being happier than anyone would predict. Meanwhile, the people who lie in wait for a feared inevitable circumstance are the unhappy ones.

My experience with customers of IT organizations supports this view. Many have told me they’d rather know there’s a problem with work being done for them than worry about whether there might be. They may not be pleased with learning about schedule slips, budget shortfalls or delayed features – let’s face it, they’ll be highly displeased – but they would rather know and deal with it than wonder and worry.

But does this preference for certainty apply across the board? Consider, for example, the homeowner who delays calling the plumber for fear that the seemingly minor leak will require an expensive repair. Or, more seriously, the person who doesn’t go to the doctor to have a pain diagnosed for fear it could be something bad. It may be that both would ultimately be happier knowing the truth and coming to terms with it if it's bad news. But for now, they prefer the state of uncertainty.

Or, returning to the IT realm, consider the manager who refrains from asking his development team about the potential for schedule slips for fear of having to deal with the messy consequences of such a slip. Or for that matter, the team leader who withholds information about a likely slip from his manager, preferring the uncertainty about how the manager will react to such news to the certainty of finding out.

User Comments

1 comment
Anonymous's picture

Although don't like uncertainty, perhaps the situation and context can be used to determine general preferences for uncertainty or knowledge of bad news. I think if you thing the news is bad, but are uncertain, most would just rather be uncertain than hear the bad news, IF they can do nothing about it anyway or they think even if they knew, their actions and worry would have little impact on the outcome. Let's take the doctor instance. If I have a problem, I have some symptoms of a deadly disease that can not be cured, I'd rather just be uncertain. If I think I could have a disease that is curable if caught in time, then I'd rather know right away so I can start the treatment.

May 26, 2012 - 8:09pm

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