Uncertainty is worse than disaster

Many mysteries explain why triumph and disaster are impostors, which is what my book is about. Here is just one: Success often introduces uncertainty, whereas failure often removes it. And, as researchers are now discovering, people cope far better with disaster than with uncertainty.

The New York Times recently had a piece on a few of these studies:

Sarah Burgard

Sarah Burgard

Sarah A. Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has for several years looked at how perceived job insecurity affects people’s health… People who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported significantly worse overall health in both studies and were more depressed in one of the studies than those who had actually lost their jobs or had even faced a serious or life-threatening illnesses. “Chronic stress is extremely damaging to your health,” Professor Burgard said. “I’m an academic and I’m going up for tenure. I know what uncertainty is. You’re unable to make plans, unable to take action. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”…

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who has studied how different people respond to uncertainty…. found that those considered higher on the neuroticism scale would prefer knowing something for sure – even if it’s negative – than not knowing….

Another psychology professor said that “people who are anxious tend to equate uncertainty with a negative outcome”, even though 85% of the actual outcomes in his studies were neutral or even positive. People also underestimate their ability to deal with bad outcomes.

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5 thoughts on “Uncertainty is worse than disaster

  1. How about that uncertainty, an abstraction, is all in the mind, but that disaster is real?

    When disaster strikes, we go absolutely in the present, into the now, our minds become concentrated on dealing with it. This takes up all the energy we previously applied to worrying, and its concomitant anxiety.

  2. I think that’s exactly it. The “in the present” bit is the key.
    Provided, that people accept the disaster, as opposed to doing Kuebler-Ross’ evasion tactics: denial, bargaining, depression, anger….

  3. I find that if I cut my day up into 15 minute increments, it works great as a hedge against worrying and also cuts down on the amount of whining.

    Let’s take a look at Frank’s morning as an example:

    9:15 a.m., Frank learns that his cash flow is dangerously low, and he may not make payroll. His brother calls him at 9:17 a.m. and asks how he is. Frank responds, “This sucks, man; I work so hard and can’t seem to stay afloat, blah blah blah.”

    9:30 a.m. Franks secretary advises him that he received that big check from a large insurance company he was expecting later in the month. His sister, Beth, calls and asks, “Frank, how the heck are you?” Frank replies, “I love life and am awesome, how are my nephews?”.

    9:45 a.m. The tests are back and Frank is advised by phone that he has a deep tissue sarcoma in his thigh. He sits in his loneliness and no one calls.

    10:00 a.m. Dr. Smithson calls to advise that the lab just called to advise that they got Frank mixed up with someone else and he is fine.

    Frank is momentarily elated and then starts worrying about the anticipated 10:45 a.m. phone call…..

    Frank should probably go to the 60 minute increments model…

  4. I just quit my job the other day. I got fed up with working for who I was working for. Considering the state of our economy this was probably the dumbest thing I could do. But now I’ve released a burden off my shoulders. There is the sense of a “blank slate”. Perhaps not having a job with soon become my “burden”. And my life is rife with uncertainty now. I want to be a web marketing consultant. I’ve been promoting my own fiction for the last six months and now I feel I can take on other people’s projects. I’ve never done this before. But I’m not scared. I’m thrilled. Doubt is a disease of a certain temperament just as blind optimism is a disease of another kind of temperament. I am not grim. I am hopeful. Sometimes I am stupidly naive. I think I’d rather be foolish than cynical.

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