The past year has been marked by uncertainty. Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic last March, and even as we’ve learned more about the nature of the novel coronavirus, our evolving understanding has confirmed how much we simply don’t know. Will we get sick? Will we lose our jobs? What will our new normal look like, and when can we expect it to arrive?
Humans don’t like not knowing. In fact, our brains are wired to crave certainty, explains neurologist Robert Burton, MD, author of On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.
That’s because feeling sure about something triggers the release of the neuro-transmitter dopamine, which stimulates the brain’s reward pathways — and leaves you wanting more.
“To get a sense of the pleasure involved, imagine having an ‘aha’ moment. It’s a feeling of great satisfaction at having arrived at absolute knowledge or certainty,” he explains. “Conversely, not knowing and being left deprived of the dopamine surge gives one a profound sense of disquiet.”
That sense of disquiet has been linked to anxiety and depression. Depending on the scope of the unknown, it can also stoke more general feelings of fear, hypervigilance, and paranoia.
For some, those emotions may incite high-risk behaviors: A June 2020 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 39 percent of respondents had misused household disinfectants — washing food with bleach, applying disinfectants to bare skin, intentionally ingesting cleaning products — to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Others may grasp for any sense of knowledge or control as a reaction to uncertainty, even if the information they seek is false. This is one reason why conspiracy theories tend to surge in times of crisis: They offer the illusion of a simple answer to a complex or frightening question.
In April 2020, a Pew Research Center study found that 23 percent of American adults surveyed believed the coronavirus was manufactured in a lab, despite evidence to the contrary. Other conspiracy theories — that the coronavirus is spread through 5G mobile networks, that the death toll has been exaggerated or inflated for political purposes — were also rampant online in the early months of the pandemic.
“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is,” mathematician John Allen Paulos has said, “and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”
It’s true that we are living in especially uncertain times, but even if we eventually eradicate the novel coronavirus, there is no eradicating uncertainty. The best way forward might be learning to embrace it.
Facing the Unknown
It’s not easy to accept our own lack of awareness, let alone actually admit it — especially in divisive times. But the truth is that most of us know considerably less than we think we do, according to cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach, PhD, coauthor of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.
“Most of the time, we don’t have enough information in our own heads to justify what we believe,” he explains. “We live under this illusion that we’ve analyzed a particular issue, but usually that ‘knowledge’ is just sound bites of other people’s opinions, or something we read in an article three months ago that we only kind of remember.”
Burton agrees, noting that an illusion of knowledge can lead to overconfidence in our own beliefs. “What others tweet becomes part of what you think, and so your mind becomes a group effort,” he explains. “As a consequence, an initially malleable position gradually gels into an absolutist stance based on reinforcement from the crowd.”
But it’s likely that any position we take also contains hidden layers of dramatic complexity of which we’re unaware. That can be challenging to admit, says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Change. Facing that truth, however, can also be liberating.
“Everyone says we’re afraid of the unknown, but I’m most afraid when I think I do know,” Salzberg says. “It’s largely the stories I tell myself that spark the greatest anxiety. But if I remind myself that I don’t know, space opens up. A sense of possibility can thrive when there’s more space, more admission of the unknown.”
Working Toward Truth
There’s a difference between admitting what we don’t know and deciding that truth is unattainable. In one scenario, we approach an issue with basic literacy, an open mind, and willingness to learn. In the other, we throw up our hands and begin to distrust everything, including facts, expertise, and scientific consensus.
We can work with our own ignorance by practicing what Fernbach calls “intellectual humility” — a midpoint between arrogance and diffidence. This involves drawing on the knowledge of others to augment our own understanding, while remaining humble enough to skirt the absolutist stances Burton cautions against.
“The secret to humanity’s ability to accomplish amazing things is really our ability to share knowledge in our communities,” Fernbach explains. “Individuals don’t know very much, but as a whole, our community knows a lot.”
This is one reason why it’s important to look to experts in times of uncertainty, rather than try to adjudicate the truth by ourselves or within a community of others who don’t know much more than we do. While expertise is not infallible, Fernbach concedes, it’s a lynchpin in our knowledge community.
It’s also under threat, as international-affairs specialist Tom Nichols, PhD, outlines in The Death of Expertise. “This is new in American culture,” he writes, “and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as any other.”
Relying on experts is an effective way to cope with uncertainty, says Fernbach — as long as you think critically about where you’re getting your information. “We as individuals probably don’t know the facts inside and out,” he explains. “So we need to be careful about what sources we’re relying on, and to think more deliberatively about whether they’ve done a careful analysis.”
Practicing intellectual humility is the first step in acknowledging uncertainty. The challenge is to sit with that uncertainty, even as the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing may tempt us to deny or resist it.
“The further we move from the reality of our experience, the more we make things up to prop up our delusions,” Salzberg explains. “We might insist on control, for example, but that doesn’t mean the volume of our insistence is going to make it happen. Happiness comes from being in alignment with the truth.”
Though uncertainty might feel unsettling in the moment, Salzberg believes that it’s also what allows us to remain open to life’s lessons. “It’s powerful to feel oneself on a path of discovery rather than adopting a stance of certainty, which closes us down,” she says.
In time, learning to stay calm and open in the face of uncertainty can also help ease our fear of the unknown, as renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explores in Comfortable With Uncertainty. “To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear,” she writes. “Total fearlessness is full enlightenment — wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world.”
This article originally appeared as “Embracing Uncertainty” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.