Uncertainty: A Silent Killer

· May 28, 2017

Certainty is associated with that need we have of knowing what is going to happen next. This is so we can anticipate life and control it. So it doesn’t take us by surprise. Uncertainty is understood as a human motivator. Specifically, one which incites us, for example, to confirm that what we think or what our senses tell us is true.

Although it varies depending on the grade and environment in which it appears, for some people uncertainty is unbearable. This is where it assumes its motivational role. Since the person who “suffers” from it has to act in order to reduce it. At least until it lowers to a level that the person can bear.

Some people tolerate uncertainty better than others. People who find themselves in a situation of great uncertainty dedicate a lot of cognitive resources into resolving it. Even more so if their tolerance is low. Two people might have had a job interview, needing the job in exactly the same way. But, if one of them has low tolerance towards uncertainty, what is likely to happen is that he will try to know the result as soon as possible. He will not wait for the company to communicate with him. He might take matters into his own hands and call the company himself.

On the other hand, uncertainty might also appear when we meet someone new. We don’t know what that person is like and this can make us feel uneasy to a certain extent. Our cognitive resources are limited. Therefore, cognitive shortcuts and heuristic strategies are a good tool to reduce uncertainty quickly. These ways of reducing uncertainty are effective, but they also have negative consequences. For example: stereotyping people or the prejudices that surface when we compare ourselves with other people or groups.

pillows yes no maybe

Triggers of uncertainty

Below are some of the causes that generate uncertainty. You might feel identified with some of them!

A source of uncertainty is the contradiction between our expectations and the signs reality provides us. Let’s imagine we just had the job interview we talked about before and did great in it, so we leave the place thinking we got the job. However, days pass and the company doesn’t call us. This is a usual sign that the job will not go to that specific interviewee. So, if we take into account the confidence with which we left the place and the contradictory signs, it is likely that the sensation of uncertainty will be even bigger.


Another source of uncertainty arises from opposing behavior and values. When we perform acts which we do not agree with, our uncertainty increases. Using the job interview example again, if by necessity we go to an interview for a job that doesn’t correspond with our beliefs, our uncertainty will also augment.  This scenario is well-reflected in movies when a lawyer who usually defends the environment starts working for a company which destroys it. These behaviors can create states of anxious uncertainty as well as cognitive dissonance.

Social injustice also appears as an element that can produce certain levels of uncertainty. The injustices we experience in our daily life can generate uncertainty. This also includes when we see other people suffering, if we are not capable of dealing with it. The lack of control over these injustices makes us doubt our capacity to predict the future. When faced with this situation, a certain attraction for radical ideologies tends to appear, as well as for groups that promise to end with these injustices.

Uncertainty from the point of view of social psychology

Uncertainty, according to social psychology, can be understood in different ways. One of them explains it as a necessity for cognitive closure. This need for cognitive closure can be defined as the desire of giving a quick answer to a question or matter that has confusing and ambiguous content.

When we feel uncertainty, we try to look for information that we consider truthful so we can reduce that uncertainty. When we find it, the information which reduced the uncertainty is considered indispensable knowledge for our daily life.

The need for cognitive closure seeks the crystallization and simplification of self-knowledge. This search for information which generates knowledge make differences appear between people, depending on the information each one of them selects.

If I, in order to reduce the uncertainty produced by the wait for the results of the job interview, accept the idea that I am not going to be chosen and another person accepts the idea that they are simply taking their time with the decision, we will have very different ideas about how that particular company works. Our expectations, as the days go by without knowing the results, will become even more different from one another.

confusing road signs

Uncertainty can modify our behavior

This knowledge that we have formed about the functioning of the company can also change. Even people with a high need for closure can, in some circumstances, (temporarily) have an open mind while they look for their cognitive closure.

If later we go to a different company for an interview, it is likely we will tell the people responsible that we’re in a hurry to know their decision. If the same thing happens, and they take too long to answer, we will fall back into uncertainty again. And once again we will try to reduce it.

On this occasion, our interpretation that we are not going to get the job does not work, since they should have communicated the answer to us already. The need for closure will make us enter a state of “urgency”. And it will also make us look for another plausible interpretation as soon as possible.  For example, that the company has chosen us, and we have passed the interview phase.

Once the cognitive closure has been achieved, people with a high need for closure tend to “conserve” their judgments and make them impermeable to new information. The new idea about the behavior of the company is more resistant than the first one. Thus, it will not be changed until new information contradicts it. For example, the confirmation that we actually have not been accepted.

What happens when our need for closure is high?

The need for cognitive closure, once awakened, can lead to a wide range of phenomena. The function of this need for closure is to create a coherent shared reality with a group. If the knowledge that our group provides us does not reduce our need, we will seek another group that will.

Those who need cognitive closure also worry more about reducing uncertainty quickly than about reducing it properly. Those with a high need for closure form impressions more quickly, with limited evidence. They usually base their judgments on common stereotypes and create biases as a fundamental error of attribution. These people also look for fewer alternatives when it comes time to resolve a problem. They are less empathetic with those who think differently. Also, these people fail to adapt their language when they have to explain their thoughts to others.

Those with a high need for closure overcome uncertainty by accepting the first information they can obtain in order to jump to conclusions. Then, they unquestionably accept that conclusion.  These people look for neat, predictable and familiar social contexts.

Social beliefs and norms which are shared by members of a group give them certainty about how the world works. About what has to be done in certain situations, about who they are and why they are important. Groups provide the context that these people are looking for. On top of that, these norms constitute their greatest source of certainty and knowledge.