Life is uncertain. We never know what will happen, and many things are unknowable. This can make us feel stressed or worried, since the unknown is associated with danger.

But as journalist Maggie Jackson argues in her new book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure, there are many benefits to allowing ourselves to be unsure about what’s happening or what will happen. Embracing uncertainty is tied to easier learning, better decision making, responding well in a crisis, improved mental health, and warmer social relationships—even during difficult social interactions, like crossing political divides. When we can let go of sureness, look beyond what we already know, stay curious, and listen to dissent, we can often come up with better solutions to the problems we encounter.

We spoke with Jackson about her book. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Advertisement X

Jill Suttie: Most of us think of being uncertain as a weakness or even a flaw—for example, when it comes to leadership. But your book argues it’s a strength. How so?

Maggie Jackson Maggie Jackson © Photo by Karen Smul

Maggie Jackson: We have a very negative view of uncertainty. We largely see it as paralyzing. But actually uncertainty is, first of all, a kind of “good stress.” When we meet something new, ambiguous, or unexpected, we have a stress response, both physiological and neural, that allows the brain to be more receptive to new data. Our attention broadens and our working memory improves. It’s a kind of wakefulness that’s really important, giving us the opportunity to learn.

Secondly, uncertainty is not just a spur to better thinking, it’s also an opportunity to investigate, to open up the space between question and answer. Studies find that uncertainty is really important or helpful for negotiation or for arguing. For example, you can make better arguments when you are not completely closed-minded and certain. Being unsure is also related to deeper deliberation. The adaptive expert is someone who is able to recognize and utilize their uncertainty to investigate a crisis or a problem or a new situation.

Uncertainty does slow us down. But that slowing allows us to uncover mistakes, especially in social situations. It allows for more accuracy. It’s linked to better collaboration, more creative, inclusive, open-minded group thinking, and other benefits like that—basically through the airing of differences. Good conflict isn’t necessarily about the triumph of one side over the other or the victory of a dissenting opinion. Frequent, respectful dissent and disagreement, even if wrong, produce performance gains in groups, because the group is jolted into a kind of wakeful questioning and skeptical uncertainty.

This flies in the face of a lot of pressures today to all get on the same page—for example, by “hiring for fit” or emphasizing that “we are family.” As scientist Sam Sommers says, a lack of diversity leads to lazy information processing. In contrast, uncertainty sparked by disagreement helps us learn from, not hide from, difference.

JS: Is there research on how uncertainty affects personal well-being?

MJ: There’s a really interesting connection between curiosity and uncertainty and well-being. Highly curious people tend to share a quality that [researcher] Todd Kashdan calls stress tolerance, or a capacity to tolerate the stress of the unknown. It’s awkward to ask questions. It’s uncomfortable to stick your nose into the unknown. But people who are highly curious tend to be willing to withstand the discomfort that it takes to explore the unknown. Curious people who can tolerate the stress of uncertainty are more willing to express dissent at work and are actually more engaged at work.

And they tend to have more pleasurable moments in life and higher life satisfaction. When you’re open and curious to all of life, both the good and bad parts, you can thrive.

Secondly, clinical psychology researchers like Michel Dugas in Canada are treating patients with anxiety by bolstering their tolerance of uncertainty. In brief, uncertainty tolerance is a personality disposition that relates to how you view the unknown. People who are intolerant of uncertainty see uncertainty as a threat, while those who are more tolerant of uncertainty see it as a challenge.

Targeting tolerance for uncertainty is one of the more promising new treatments for many mental disorders, because the fear of the unknown is beginning to be seen as a root vulnerability factor for mental disorders. Such interventions jump off from exposure therapy and teach people practical ways to try new things, to work at the edge of the known. Some patients, for instance, try to delegate more at work. By doing so, they can learn that their predictions about uncertainty being a disaster are often wrong.

JS: What affects our willingness to be uncertain?

MJ: Uncertainty tolerance is both a personality trait and a state. In other words, it is both innate—people tend to dislike the unknown to varying degrees—and yet it also is situational. In the latter case, when people are tired, when they’re pressed to give an answer, when they’re suffering from information overload, those are all times when no matter where they lie on the spectrum of tolerating uncertainty, they tend to want an answer—any answer.

Some leading psychologists, including Nicholas Carleton, believe that our devices may be correlated with rising uncertainty intolerance. For example, one of Carleton’s studies suggests that increased adoption of cell phones and the internet over time is related to rising intolerance of uncertainty in young people. More work needs to be done on that. But anecdotally we live in a certainty-seeking culture, and this may be bolstering our fear of the unknown.

JS: What can we do to fight these pressures?

MJ: We need to be more educated, both individually and more formally, about what uncertainty is. We’re operating with extremely outdated ideas of this mindset, shaped by hundreds of years of industrial and then technological pressures to be efficient. The pressure to know and to judge ourselves and others only by outcomes squeezes out the valuing of process—times when we might need a moment to reconsider a situation and inhabit the question rather than racing to an answer, any answer.

<a href=“” title=”“><em>Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure</em></a> (Prometheus, 2023, 344 pages) Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure (Prometheus, 2023, 344 pages)

It’s important to be attuned to the signal that uncertainty gives when you confront something new, that it is time to update your understanding of the world. One recent study out of the University of Washington did qualitative interviews with doctors after they’d finished a clinical shift and asked them about the sticky moments in their day. And [the researchers] found that the physicians’ discomfort of uncertainty was correlated with a heightened monitoring of the situation and more of a tendency to look ahead to define and muster the resources needed. Through this study, we are reminded that the unease of uncertainty is actually a gift.

Picking up on uncertainty’s invitation to learn involves leaning into uncertainty. First, if you’re expecting life to be familiar, unchanging, you’re going to be missing out. Also, people who are stressed in highly unpredictable situations, who are leaning into the stress of uncertainty without being overwhelmed, are actually able to perform better. Some studies show that people who are taught that the stress of the unknown—the stress of making a presentation or a school exam—is equipping them to perform better, actually become more effective in these challenging situations. That’s a kind of uncertainty tolerance.

JS: How is allowing for uncertainty helpful in social situations—in particular across difference?

MJ: There’s a lot of work now on perspective taking, a cognitive form of empathy, where you try to imagine how someone else sees the world. It’s been linked to being willing to sit closer to someone whom you are threatened by, such as a convicted murderer or another outcast, maybe a drug user. And it’s linked to being willing to engage with them—and with others of their kind. In other words, there’s a spillover effect beyond the individual, to other members of the same group.

At the root of perspective taking is making yourself uncertain, loosening categorizations that come so easily to us—the labels we unconsciously place on others in an outgroup, which have so many implications for how we behave with one another. Perspective taking involves a leap of imagination. You cannot really know someone else’s perspective. It is an act of deliberate perplexity.

JS: Considering our current political climate, how do you see uncertainty being helpful for reducing polarization?

MJ: I went canvassing in Los Angeles with the Leadership Lab, the research arm of one of the largest LGBTQ+ [rights] organizations in the country. And they have gotten some attention for developing methods of conversation with opposing voters that lower bias against people who are transgender and gay. At the heart of their strategy is perspective taking, the willingness to imagine the “other” side’s perspective. Their 10-minute conversations can lower bias in opposition voters by about as much as Americans’ bias against gay people fell from 1998 to 2012.

What they did was throw away their scripts and their talking points and stop trying to feed the opponent scripted doses of information. Instead, they started listening and trading stories, both seeing their opponent as an individual, not as a label, and taking time to imagine the world through their eyes. These practices lowered bias on both sides—in the activist, too.

Perspective taking—deliberate perplexity—is a starting point for seeing one another with an open mind. When we can loosen our assumptions and see another’s perspective, we can begin to see in an opponent not set-in-stone wrong but potential—the potential to learn and change, as we can, too. Uncertainty ultimately offers a space for mutual learning. It moves us past labels and readies us to engage fully with the “other” side, with those who are most different from us.

So, uncertainty can tame polarization by helping us build bridges to the other side. But it also can dial back our divisions by helping us to combat the insularity of “our” side. Not-knowing sparked by respectful conflict jolts people away from lazy accord and onto what I call “uncommon ground,” where better collaboration can begin. 

In these ways, uncertainty allows us to better connect both with those we loathe and those with whom we overly agree. It allows us to more clearly see and most importantly learn from the remarkable diversity within our own and the “other” side, instead of seeing people as “just like us” or “just another one of them.” It allows us to move away from black-and-white thinking and see the complexity that is already there.

GreaterGood Tiny Logo Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?
You May Also Enjoy
blog comments powered by Disqus