Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I used to be uncertain but now I’m not so sure

The desire for uncertainty is one of several basic human psychological needs. But unlike its sibling, certainty, it is very much dose related. We like variety but only that which we can comfortably control.  How we react to uncertainty, to the vicissitudes of life can tell us a lot about ourselves and others.

People respond to chaos in different ways. You may be one of those who uses it as an excuse to clean out all the kitchen cupboards and line them with nice clean, pretty paper. The washing will be even more neatly pegged out on the line. Chaos can trigger a rebuild of the car engine some other autistic activity. You probably will start making lists: long ones with lots of detail. The diary will suddenly fill up. Your tolerance for the slightest deviation from protocol, process or policy will be regarded with a sharp look, even a snarl. This response is an attempt to obtain a feeling of being in control: of something, anything.

There is another group who respond rather differently. You are already chaotic and you become even more so. The kites that you so often fly become even larger and balloon out with vast amounts of air as they navigate the clouds. You’ll suddenly start a new project and expect everyone to down tools and ignore the chaos around them. Whatever project management skills you may have used, or been coerced to use in the past, will go completely out of the window. You are lost with your fellow passengers in a foreign town in a car late at night with nowhere to sleep but asking directions is the last thing you’ll do.

Needless to say, each approach has a habit of completely unsettling the other. Basically, the two groups are seeing the world in completely different ways. Of course, they were doing this before the uncertainty started but increasing stress tends to cause us to revert more to type. Conservatives become more conservative and liberals more liberal. The religious become more entrenched in their beliefs and the secular become more fascinated with proof. Dogmas become emphasised. This is not a complex idea. Humans make up hypotheses all the time about how the world is operating and then find solutions that best fit their existing values, attitudes and beliefs: what we call schema.

More tellingly, though, uncertainty can reveal some rather more unsettling, on the one hand, and encouraging, on the other, personality characteristics. People with a higher than average degree of narcissism (we are all at least a little bit narcissistic), for example, are more likely to respond to uncertainty and inconvenience with anger. Certain personality types will be overwhelmed by anxiety for a variety of reasons: fear of abandonment; loss of control; previous experience with severe anxiety; fear of loss; and an intense biological reaction to stressors, for example. You’ve no doubt met the micro manager whose need for control becomes extremely neurotic in the face of chaos. And you’ve seen people who turn inwards, into their shell, ostrich with head in the sand as the world around them is exploding. Self-medication with alcohol is another neurotic response.

Then there are those who step up to the plate. Uncertainty reveals their stickability, stoicism, humour, ability to plan and organise, apparent calmness, and concentration. These people are likely to be highly resilient, having learnt to be so from surviving life’s hard knocks in the past. They are confident in their own ability. They may well be anxious and uncertain about the potential outcomes. They may even think that success is unlikely. But they forge ahead in any case and people follow them.

I once worked on an exciting project involving a collaboration between a large health organisation and a university. A fellow was seconded to the project to work with me from the health department and he had previously held a very senior position with a large research staff and a huge budget. Ours was a start up with very modest beginnings, although it became a great success. Fairly early on in our project I asked him once when things were not going well and we were struggling whether or not he missed the power, the influence that he once had. His response was very telling, ‘If I want power I’ll go and get it’.

You can tell a lot about people by the way they handle uncertainty. In fact you can tell a lot about how people meet any of the human needs. We all have the same needs but make different choices about how to achieve them. Some are positive and some are negative. Most of these choices are based on emotion. But that is a story for later on perhaps.


  1. Interesting to apply the thoughts from your blog to the reactions of survivors of the Christchurch earthquake. In another context, some small business owners claim everything is uncertain so they will not plan ahead or set perfomance golas!

  2. Yes indeed. And others will overplan, others will pretend it's not happening and some will freeze.

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