Dealing with Uncertainty

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Pic Credit: Stuart Miles

Pic Credit: Stuart Miles

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your openness to change can trigger them.

Last week, I wrote about how people with different personality types might handle the ambiguity of an international relocation process:

  • If there is a “J” in your Type code, you probably prefer the feeling of certainty and closure when finishing projects. You’ll make decisions quite quickly, to have a sense of certainty to build on. If necessary, decisions can obviously be changed.
  • If there is a “P” in your Type code, you probably prefer the openness and potential of new projects. You’ll enjoy staying in the beginning phases and gathering information for as long as possible, to have a sense of openness and potential as the process unfolds.

To help alleviate the feeling of stress over not-knowing in those Js, I suggested simplifying the complexity of the relocation down into manageable pieces. For example, if you don’t have an exact moving date yet, you may feel like you’re in complete limbo. This may cause anxiety, but it doesn’t mean you have to put everything on hold. Live on as normal, and make plans about the different steps you’ll have to take once the move begins. You’ll be prepared when the time comes, and seeing action items black on white will make them seem less threatening and overwhelming. In other words:

If you can write it, you can do it. (Tweet this.)

Our brains like easy

Knowing is easy, learning is hard. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to change habits – if we’ve been doing it forever, we don’t have to think about it, it’s automatic. Our brain likes automatic.

Change and doing things differently means the brain has to expend energy, oxygen and glucose on functions that it already knows how to do, so why can’t we just do it the good old-fashioned way? (Of course, when our brains start to whine is different depending on personality type and temperament; some of us have a higher threshold than others, but there’s still a threshold.) Until the new habit becomes as automatic as the old one, you’re fighting an uphill battle. The key is sticking to it.

Our brain also works a lot on assumptions. For example, the reality you think you’re seeing is to a large extent manufactured by your brain. Here’s a little experiment to demonstrate.

Your blind spot is a patch in the retina of your eye that has no photoreceptors.

Close your left eye, and keep your right eye fixed on the “+” sign.

Slowly move your head towards and away from the screen you’re viewing this blog on.


black cross and dot blind spot visual exercise.png

At one point, the black dot disappears. That’s because your brain is filling in what it thinks should be there based on what it knows: more gray marble.

Uncertainty Avoidance

As Geert Hofstede found in his research, there is also a cultural component of how we deal with ambiguity. He explains this dimensions on his website (UAI = Uncertainty Avoidance Index):

The uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.

High uncertainty avoidance may show up in things like extensive bureaucracy, rules, regulations, and relying on written contracts. In business, people may be less inclined to take risks, and less likely to trust ideas, intuition, or improvisation. People of high UAI countries will feel that careful planning and taking all variables into account has a greater chance to predict the future outcome than “winging it”.

Pic found on

Pic found on

The personality type preference you are born with, then, may either be supported by your environment or not so much. For example, growing up with NP preferences in Germany you have probably found ways to relate your brainstorming ideas to predictable patterns, or build them on top of existing certainty.

Awareness helps

Your personality type preferences predispose you to react to uncertainty with more or less anticipation. Your brain processes visual and other information in ways that are most convenient, automatically filling in blind spots to provide a sense of certainty. The culture you grew up in may have nurtured your innate preferences, or taught you different uncertainty avoidance or embracing strategies.

Having an awareness of these factors hopefully helps next time you’re feeling helpless in the face of uncertainty:

  • Remember to simplify and divide complex tasks into manageable pieces
  • Consider that your perception may be skewed and you’re only seeing what your brain expects you to see – can you look harder (from different angles) and find hidden gems?
  • Formulate your novel ideas and plans for change by taking into account cultural bias