If I could show you the future so that you knew with certainty exactly what would happen for the rest of your life would you take the offer? You would know when you got married and for how long, when you would get sick and when you would die. If you chose to take the offer, there is a lot of research that shows that both your happiness and anxiety would decrease significantly. As it turns out, uncertainty has a major impact on emotion.
In one study , participants were asked to complete a 30 minute task on the computer and were told that 1 in 5 would win a prize after completion of the task (but all actually won). Each then selected their two favorite prizes from a list. Finally, 1/3 of participants spun a wheel to tell them which of the two prizes they had won, 1/3 were just given both prizes, and 1/3 were told that they would spin the wheel at the end of the study. The researchers found that the uncertain group was happier than both the group that knew which present they would receive and the group who received both presents. So uncertainty created more happiness than doubling the actual reward!
Another study with a surprising result studied people who had been given their test results to determine if they had inherited a gene for Huntington’s disease. The people who received both positive and negative results showed an increase in happiness over the following year (following the initial drop). Surprisingly, the group that was given inconclusive results showed the most distress over the following year. So, the group that still faced uncertainty was more anxious than the group that knew for sure that they had a serious disease! Many other studies have shown that uncertainty both around when a negative event will occur and the probability it will occur increases anxiety.
Why Does This Occur?
There are two main explanations for why this happens. (1) From a behavioral standpoint, giving a reward at an intermittent interval (giving an animal food after they press a level 50% of the time) greatly increases pleasure and motivation by creating a surge of dopamine. In fact, this effect is maximized when rewards are given 50% of the time (when uncertainty is maximized). This explains, for example, why so many people get addicted to gambling. See the below video for a more detailed explanation:
(2) From a cognitive standpoint, you’re more likely to think about something that you don’t understand. The researchers from the first study explained the process as follows:
Emotional events attract our attention, particularly ones that are self-relevant but poorly understood. When people attend to such events they try to understand them, by assimilating the event to their preexisting schemas or creating new schemas to accommodate the event. As a result, events that were not well understood come to seem predictable and ordinary, and no longer attract as much attention as they did originally. Put differently, the process of understanding an event—categorizing it, explaining it, assimilating it to our knowledge structures—transforms extraordinary, emotion-provoking events into ordinary events that people do not think about very much. It follows that anything that makes it difficult to understand an event will prolong people’s affective reactions to it.
In general you should try to increase uncertainty around positive events and decrease it around negative events. Maybe it will make a big difference in your life!
Bar-Anan, Yoav, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert. “The feeling of uncertainty intensifies affective reactions.” Emotion 9.1 (2009): 123.
Kurtz, Jaime L., Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert. “Quantity versus uncertainty: When winning one prize is better than winning two.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43.6 (2007): 979-985.
Lake, Jessica I., and Kevin S. LaBar. “Unpredictability and uncertainty in anxiety: a new direction for emotional timing research.” Frontiers in integrative neuroscience 5 (2011).
Wiggins, Sandi, et al. “The psychological consequences of predictive testing for Huntingtons disease.” New England Journal of Medicine 327.20 (1992): 1401-1405.
Wilson, Timothy D., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “Explaining away: A model of affective adaptation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 3.5 (2008): 370-386.
Wilson, Timothy D., et al. “The pleasures of uncertainty: prolonging positive moods in ways people do not anticipate.” Journal of personality and social psychology 88.1 (2005): 5.