The downside of uncertainty

If you don’t like uncertainty, you’re not alone. Humans have good reason to not like uncertainty—our brains interpret it as danger. The evidence for this comes from studies showing that people would rather accept an unfavorable but certain outcome over an uncertain outcome. In one study, researchers found that knowing there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock leads to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely be shocked. It’s no wonder that we seek certainty, sometimes at the expense of truth.

Tracking uncertainty is fundamental to how our brains work. Predictive processing tells us that our senses do not provide a high resolution situation analysis of our surroundings. Because of this, we are forced to make assumptions about what’s out there in the world. The ability to track uncertainty comes with a distinct benefit—the ability to doubt what we perceive.

Great Human Strength: We can assess uncertainty and question what to believe.

Great Human Weakness: Our brains interpret uncertainty as danger: we don’t like it. We might avoid uncertainty by creating false truths and indulging in wishful thinking.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us understand uncertainty in a contextually appropriate way, or help us flip uncertainty around and see opportunity instead.