How Our Brains Deal with Uncertainty

I believe we all have an inner actuary.

This is the part of our brains that evaluates risk: in things we’ve done before and in others we’ve never tried. Its job is to keep us safe. If the risk profile of what we’re considering is anything above zero, it warns us not to do it.

Your inner actuary is particularly sensitive to uncertainty. This occurs when there’s a mismatch between what we anticipate and what’s going on. It comes in two forms:

  • Expected uncertainty: While what we have learned from experience doesn’t always accurately predict the future, we know what this unreliability is and can factor it into our decisions.
  • Unexpected uncertainty: A rare, fundamental change in the environment invalidates what we know, so we’re unable to accurately predict an outcome from our actions.

How Much We Hate Uncertainty

Any kind of uncertainty freaks us out more than anticipating physical pain! Here’s how we know.

Researchers in London did an experiment. They told one group of participants they would receive a painful electrical shock. They told a second they probably would get shocked. Then the scientists studied their reactions.

The people who knew they would get a shock felt calmer and were much less agitated than those who had a 50% chance of feeling the electrical current.

How Uncertainty Affects Our Brains

When you know what’s coming—like a shock—your brain prepares for it. When you don’t know what’s coming—or expect something else—your brain experiences uncertainty. This is tracked by your locus coeruleus (LC), a part of your survival brain.

Not knowing which scenario to plan for, the LC releases norepinephrine: a stress hormone. This increases the force of contraction in your muscles for fight or flight, then raises your heart rate to handle either. That’s why you can feel tingly or on edge—like the people waiting to receive a shock.

Make a Positive Choice

Feeling those jitters is a good thing! It means your brain and body are adaptable and prepared enough to move among the different scenarios that are a part of uncertainty.

The problem happens when our inner actuary tells us this is punishment for not playing it safe—and we believe it.

Most of the decisions you make as a leader involve some flavor of not knowing exactly what will happen next. You try to factor in the expected uncertainties. You try not to be too thrown by the unexpected ones—and look for the opportunities that these create.

Don’t attach value judgments from your inner actuary to your brain’s marvelous ability to adapt. Ride that wave of the pricklies and believe it will take you to a better place.