This is a time of questions without answers. Will I get infected? When will there be a vaccine? Is my job secure? When will life be normal again? The experts may have guesses, or estimates, for some of these quandaries but there is no certainty, and this drives us nuts.
Humans abhor uncertainty, and will do just about anything to avoid it, even choosing a known bad outcome over an unknown but possibly good one. In one British study participants experienced greater stress when they had a 50 percent chance of receiving an electric shock than when they had a 100 percent chance. Intolerance for uncertainty puts people at greater risk for ailments such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
We take it as a given that uncertainty is always bad and, conversely, that certitude is always good. Yet ancient philosophy, as well as a growing body of scientific evidence, suggests otherwise. Uncertainty need not hobble us, and “in the right form and in the right amount, it’s actually a great pleasure,” says Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard.
We engage in certain activities—such as watching thrillers or reading mysteries—precisely because the outcome is uncertain. Or, say you receive a note from a secret admirer. The mystery of who sent it, Gilbert says, yields “the kind of uncertainty you would find delicious and delightful.” Yet we remain largely oblivious to our own love of pleasant—call it benign—uncertainty. Gilbert and his colleagues have found that even though uncertainty about a positive event prolongs people’s pleasure, we’re generally convinced that we’ll be happiest when all uncertainty is eliminated.