Certainty About Uncertainty

[article]
Summary:

There's an excellent article in the New York Times (5/21/09) by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness, a book I recommend and frequently quote in my own writings. The article is called "What You Don't Know Makes You Nervous" and the gist of it is that people tend to be more content knowing the worst case scenario than facing the uncertainty of not knowing.

There's an excellent article in the  New York Times (5/21/09) by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness , a book I recommend and frequently quote in my own writings. The article is called "What You Don't Know Makes You Nervous" and the gist of it is that people tend to be more content knowing the worst case scenario than facing the uncertainty of not knowing.

According to research Gilbert cites, uncertainty about a possible unwanted outcome upsets people more than certainty about that very same outcome. It's the not knowing that drives people crazy. Whereas when people know what the situation is—even if it's bad news—they may agitate over it, but then they come to terms with it, deal with it, and get on with their lives.

As Gilbert puts it, people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Thus, people who have faced the most undesirable life circumstances and made peace with their situation often report being happier than anyone would predict. Meanwhile, the people who lie in wait for a feared inevitable circumstance are the unhappy ones.

Check out Gilbert's article—and also the video at the end of the article, where you can hear his presentation on the subject. Fascinating stuff!

User Comments

1 comment
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I wonder what this tells us about risk management on software projects? I've long believed that managers so often ignore or hide risks primarily because they can't tolerate uncertainty. It's easier to pretend a risk isn't there than to have to live with not knowing whether or not it's going to hit.<br><br>But then, is there a way we can use Gilbert's insight to get uncertainty-intolerant people to actually deal with risk?

June 10, 2009 - 7:49pm

About the author

AgileConnection is one of the growing communities of the TechWell network.

Featuring fresh, insightful stories, TechWell.com is the place to go for what is happening in software development and delivery.  Join the conversation now!