How practical wisdom can help us deal with the stress of uncertainty

Policymakers can also learn from a few simple guidelines

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A version of this article originally appeared in the Behavioral Scientist, a magazine that examines the world through the science of human behavior.

The stress of uncertain pain is greater the stress of certain pain. These were the results of a 2016 study, published long before the uncertainty of pandemic 2020. 

In the study, participants with a 50% chance of receiving a shock were more stressed than those with a 100% chance of receiving a shock.

This study provides experimental evidence for something most of us are experiencing now: The uncertainty of not knowing what will happen in our world, to our jobs, for our kids or to our health if we deign to hug friends and family. 

It’s no surprise, then, that a recent study showed a threefold increase in psychological distress compared to pre-pandemic times.

Psychological distress in the face of uncertainty is no accident — it’s human nature. Jill Stoddard, a clinical psychologist and author of a book about managing anxiety, told us, “Our anxiety and discomfort are products of evolution. Anxious early humans who avoided uncertainty had a survival advantage.” 

Modern life makes it even harder to tolerate anxiety, Stoddard added: “Because technology has deleted our ability to strengthen our tolerance of uncertainty muscles, we have become progressively more anxious when faced with the unknown.” 

As one recent research study showed, problematic levels of technology use are associated with higher intolerance of uncertainty.

While the world begins to open back up in fits and starts, we are, more than ever, longing for certainty and an end to the maze of unanswerable questions. We yearn for rules that can guide healthier, happier living, rules that would offer clear parameters. 

Few such rules have arrived. When they do, they tend to offer a rapidly moving target, such as the viral video describing a complex process for how to safely grocery shop during coronavirus that was followed in short order by other experts dismissing much of the same advice. Clearer and more consistent rules may arrive at some point, but in the meantime we need guidance in managing the pain of our uncertainty.

Instead of anxiously awaiting clearer rules or for uncertainty to diminish, we can look back. Way back, to the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

In our environment of competing priorities and rampant uncertainties, we can turn to “practical wisdom,” which Aristotle explored in his Nicomachean Ethics. It means knowing how to balance conflicting aims and principles. This kind of wisdom acknowledges that uncertain risk cannot be eliminated, but guides us in becoming wiser about how we manage it. 

Practical wisdom develops in part out of what we learn from books, data and teachers. Many of us are already on a data-gathering mission when it comes to COVID-19, monitoring the news and the latest data. 

But wisdom also depends on something besides cold, hard facts. It requires lived experience and knowledge of the people for and about whom we are making decisions.

Economist and author Emily Oster uses tools from social science to help individuals in a role where uncertainty reigns supreme: parenting. In her research-driven guides on pregnancy (Expecting Better) and parenting (Cribsheet), Oster offers a two-step process that begins with data. But, according to Oster, data can’t “tell you the single right answer for every person. It’s just going to tell you some information and some tradeoffs you have to think about.” 

The important next step, she explained, is to take “data and combine it with things you know about your family’s preferences and what you think will work for your family and put those together to make a decision that’s right for you.” 

We can also remind ourselves that knowledge is never complete nor are outcomes certain, even though decisions must get made. It may be hard to recall, but in more normal times we routinely made choices balancing risk. Some of those risks are ones we didn’t (and don’t) think much about: We drive cars, swim in oceans and cross streets without much concern.

We accept risk when risk seems low, when the benefits seem obvious, and when experience and technologies assist us in tolerating risk that cannot be avoided. And we accept some risks simply because we are used to living with them. We tolerate the uncertainty of outcomes because this is a part of being alive.

If it feels like we are flying blind now, that’s because uncertainty is growing. And with greater risk and uncertainty, we naturally experience greater stress. Parents, for example, seldom worried about sending kids to school during flu season (or, if they did, it didn’t stop most kids from attending). Now, parents are agonizing over what to do when schools fully reopen. 

We can begin with our knowledge about what the risks are, and self-knowledge about what risks we are willing to take and what benefits we’d like to prioritize. And we can use practical wisdom to steer through the uncertainty. Here are four ways we can lean on Aristotle’s ideas to guide us through the uncertain terrain:

  1. Start with the data (what we do know and what we can control.)

To combat the stress of uncertainty, direct attention to areas of relative certainty. Just as you would learn which intersections have makeshift crosswalks or less traffic, you can learn what behaviors in your control would be helpful. In this way, we know that wearing masks, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces and maintaining social distance can reduce viral spread. Stoddard uses this tip in her own life: “When I notice my anxiety rising, I think about what I can and can’t control. I can’t control the pandemic and its consequences, but I can turn to my husband for support when I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I can make extra efforts to be affectionate, attuned, and loving with my kids.”

  1. Avoid black and white thinking.

A wise person recognizes that almost all situations and choices are accompanied by infinite shades of gray, and that we cannot eliminate risk, no matter what we do. In fact, even a decision to never leave our homes until a busy city puts up crosswalks could leave us trapped at home for longer than would be healthy. Similarly, waiting for a vaccine is accompanied by all sorts of risk — reduced physical activity because of staying home, social isolation that can lead to depression and anxiety, and boredom that can breed intellectual stagnation. Priorities will conflict much of the time. Optimizing benefit and reducing risk still means there will be some risk. We are better off when we choose risk wisely.

  1. Start with the rules, and then consider wise modifications.

If rules are like GPS instructions to get to a friend’s house, then COVID-19 is like the three-car pileup and EMT crews that the GPS failed to account for. You could stick around and wait for your GPS reroute, but you might trap yourself by doing so. Instead, you could explore a different route. This doesn’t mean tossing out the guidelines for safety. Rather, it means developing your ability to add wise modifications for your unique circumstances, even while remaining sensitive to the general safety of the community. There is uncertainty either way, of course, but there is much to be said for using the GPS as a rough guide, to be modified by your familiarity with the roads and your self-knowledge about what kinds of risk it is wise for you and those you love to tolerate.

  1. Learn to accept uncertainty — it is a key ingredient for fostering wisdom.

Practical wisdom requires an appreciation that there is no perfect choice, and that each choice has benefits, drawbacks, and uncertainties. An abundance of research reveals that tolerating uncertainty to engage in trial-and-error learning helps us develop cognitive networks that can guide us through new experiences. When we make decisions wisely, we can ease our distress by pausing to appreciate that we are doing the best we can in alarmingly uncertain circumstances.

In truth, the world we inhabit is an uncertain place. There are no guarantees, even when we generate safety measures to reduce risk or habituate to uncertainties that are a part of living. In a pre-COVID world, we had learned to live so well with most of the uncertainty we face that we tended not to notice it. COVID-19 has introduced uncertainties that we haven’t yet learned to live with.

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Yael Schonbrun
Yael Schonbrun

Yael Schonbrun is an assistant professor at Brown University and a co-host of the "Psychologists Off the Clock" podcast.

Barry Schwartz
Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz is a visiting professor at Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley and emeritus professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. He is the author of "The Paradox of Choice," "Why We Work," and "Practical Wisdom" (with Kenneth Sharpe).