Coping and uncertainty

Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has suggested that humans are in some way wired for cognitive closure, that is, a desire for absolute answers and aversion towards ambiguity (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Uncertainty makes us anxious, so much so that we are more likely to repeat past behaviours not because we believe that they will result in a different outcome, but precisely because we know they won't. Ambiguity leads to frustration which, in turn, leads to cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding two contradictory thoughts, opinions or beliefs. On Wednesday when the bin lorry has stopped in the middle of the road, preventing you from getting past, you berate yourself again for not taking an alternative route. But the alternative route takes you through a part of town you don't know all that well and, for all you know, the traffic there might be worse. You, therefore, repeat the behaviour because the potential uncertainty you might face is simply too much to consider.

We can set goals and we can plan our future to the best of our ability, that way we can reduce the chance of uncertainty, but we can never eliminate it entirely. But being unable to deal with uncertainty causes distress in itself because we worry that we can no longer predict the outcome of any situation, this uncertainty avoidant behaviour triggers safety-seeking behaviours such as looking to others for reassurance, obsessive checking, superstitious rituals, risk avoidance and attempts to influence other people (see Chapter 9 for a full discussion on how to reduce extreme safety-seeking behaviours). If you are the kind of person who avoids situations where the outcome is unknown, you might find that you are poorly equipped to deal with uncertainly. Perhaps you are a planner, a person who needs to plan everything in order to avoid any nasty unexpected surprises. This uncertainty avoidance can be very useful because it allows us to ensure that we know exactly what is expected of ourselves and others (it's related to coordination, one of the 5Cs of academic buoyancy and will feature prominently in later chapters). However, experiencing uncertainty is also important if we are to successfully bounce back from daily hassles. Intolerance of uncertainty can also lead to lower levels of wellbeing, including a heightened propensity towards anxiety and depression. So we need to plan but we also need to accept that uncertainty exists and that things might not go the way we expect them to.

Of course, separating those things we need to be certain of from those where a little ambiguity wouldn't go amiss is important. It's probably best that we keep an eye on our bank balance to avoid spending money we don't have, while heading off on a road trip with no plan whatsoever might feel frightening but will no doubt be exciting. Indeed, psychologists such as Kruglanski suggest that by placing ourselves in situations whereby the outcome is unknown, we can become better equipped at dealing with our intolerance to ambiguity. How we cope with this ambiguity is, however, governed by both our emotional state and the situation in which we find ourselves. If we are tired and irritable and late for work, the broken shoelace will do little to calm us or, indeed, desensitise us from this intolerance. Michel Dugas of the University of Quebec in Outaouais has suggested that by pinpointing these specific concerns, certainty-seeking behaviour can be avoided (Dugas, Schwartz & Francis, 2004).

Take, for example, the colleague who spends the weekend checking and re-checking school emails. This checking has become a habit (see Chapter 5), potentially fuelled by uncertainty aversion. By checking work emails we ensure that there are no nasty surprises when we arrive at work on Monday morning, yet they eat into our weekend and place us constantly on edge. In all likelihood, many of the emails we receive are in part the result of another colleague clearing their desk last thing on Friday before going home, yet this action then trickles down to others who feel compelled to deal with the contents of said emails prior to Monday. The uncertainty arises because we don't know if there is an email we need to deal with in our inbox or not and these feelings of unknowing create anxiety and frustration. The moral of this story is simple - don't send emails at the weekend or last thing on Friday.

Technology is certainly a double-edged sword. When I was young I would go to the park or the cinema with my friends, often staying out much of the day and only arriving home in time for the evening meal. Contacting my parents was difficult and usually involved ensuring that I had enough change to make a call from a public phone box, even though the need to do so rarely arose. As a parent I have fallen into the trap laid for us by the rise of the mobile phone, and I always check that my son is able to call or text me when he's out. Mobile phones have reduced uncertainty - I know that my son can contact me if a situation arises that he feels ill-equipped to deal with. In realty, he rarely calls or texts me, but simply knowing he can reduces the anxiety and feeds my uncertainty avoidance.

The answer to the uncertainty avoidance problem might be straightforward, yet it is far from easy. Simply 'backing off' a little is the most straightforward strategy. Not knowing if my son can contact me, for example, will eventually reduce my need to ensure that he can. This also opens a space whereby he can be given the opportunity to test his capacity to deal with challenging situations, thus triggering the natural human propensity towards becoming more resilient. Ironically, perhaps, in our drive to help our children cope, we often limit their control to naturally develop coping strategies.

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