How you cope with uncertainty predicts how biased you are

How you cope with uncertainty predicts how biased you are

uncertainty at work

How you cope with uncertainty predicts how biased you are

How we cope with uncertainty at work and other places affects so much. Researchers looking at many issues from decision-making to anxiety are starting to focus on people’s intolerance of uncertainty or how we cope with uncertainty and are finding that this one thing changes so much including how we see things.

How we process information is central to how we perceive the world, make decisions, judgements, come to conclusions and make plans, and how we behave. The issue here is how an individual interprets information and how close to reality or how biased any interpretation is.

uncertainty at work

Previous Research

Previous research has found that interpretation bias is centrally involved in issues like anxiety and negative thinking. What this means is that there is a feedback loop between how we perceive things and our emotions. So that if we interpret something, say an object like a spider or a face or a situation as negative or as a problem, this sets up an emotion say anxiety for example, and that emotion then reinforces the interpretation.

Indeed the very definition of interpretation bias is the tendency to interpret novel information from the environment as negative. So even if the individual hasn’t come across the situation before, their first reaction is likely to be negative.
There is a significant amount of evidence now to show that interpretation bias is a primary cause of anxiety disorders.
Recently studies have also shown that intolerance to uncertainty is a major contributory factor to interpretation bias and hence to anxiety. We are not just talking spiders here. What this means is that people with levels of intolerance to uncertainty are significantly more likely to ascribe a negative emotion to ambiguous or uncertain situations at work for example. As a result their interpretations of the situation and other things whilst they are in this state are very likely to be biased.

Intolerance to uncertainty

Very recent research has shown that intolerance to uncertainty or how people cope with uncertainty is implicated in a whole range of issues from social anxiety, to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and a propensity to panic for example. In fact a legion of evidence is now amassing to show that intolerance to uncertainty underpins many cognitive biases. Previous studies have shown that people with an elevated intolerance to uncertainty display increased concern about the possibility of negative outcomes in an uncertain or ambiguous situation, and that they also process information differently when things are uncertain or ambiguous. In effect they actually perceive or see and hear things differently when uncertainty is apparent.

 intolerance of uncertainty

The study

What the researchers in this study did was to examine 76 subjects (72.4% female) between 18 and 35 years old with a variety of racial backgrounds. They first tested them on a standard intolerance to uncertainty test, frequently used in such studies called the IUS-12 or Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale, Short Form. This assesses an individual’s ability to tolerate the uncertainty of vague or ambiguous situations, and I use it with coaching clients and in organisations. It is generally considered to be valid and reliable measure of intolerance to uncertainty. It does require a trained and qualified analyst to make the correct diagnosis.

They then used an instrument called the PANAS or Positive and Negative Affect Schedule to assess the individual’s reactions during the study.

They presented the subjects with 55 scenarios, which each had varying degrees of vagueness, ambiguousness and uncertainty contained within them. The scenarios comprised of situations across things like, work scenarios, personal relationships, finance, occupational competence, health etc.

How we cope with uncertainty changes how we see things and how biased we are

They then looked at what interpretation the individuals placed on each of the scenarios they had been faced with.
What they discovered was that people with levels of intolerance to uncertainty are significantly more likely to misinterpret or bias their interpretations in ambiguous or uncertain situations compared to more certain situations. Not only that, but they found that intolerance to uncertainty predicts interpretation bias and that the bias is usually negative.

The greater the intolerance to uncertainty the greater the propensity for interpretation bias there is. What this shows is that it is people’s tolerance or otherwise of uncertainty, vagueness and ambiguity, which predicts how they will view and interpret situations and how for from the reality of the situation those interpretations will be. In other words intolerance to uncertainty can affect This research also suggests intolerance to uncertainty changes how we perceive the world, make decisions, judgements, come to conclusions, make plans and strategies, and how we behave.

organisational change

So what? How we cope with uncertainty and change

Why does this matter?

Well think about this. You have a group of risk or change averse people in an organisation (sound familiar?). Actually what you are most likely to find is that intolerance of uncertainty sits at the bottom of both of these (and other) issues.

Now imagine that you are trying to create organisational change (creating uncertainty) and you decide to communicate with the people in the organisation but can’t see why people aren’t quite seeing things like you are…

Oglesby, M.E., Raines, A.M., Short, N.A., Capron, D.W. and Schmidt, N.B., 2016. Interpretation bias for uncertain threat: A replication and extension. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 51, pp.35-42.

Supporting papers

Beard, C., & Amir, N. (2008). A multi-session interpretation modification program: Changes in interpretation and social anxiety symptoms. Behaviour research and therapy, 46(10), 1135-1141.
Mahoney, A. E., & McEvoy, P. M. (2012). A transdiagnostic examination of intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depressive disorders. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 41(3), 212-222.

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David Wilkinson

  • David Newman says:

    It is possible to be trained in measuring your own uncertainty. An EPSRC research project, the World of Uncertainty, built a computer game to train people to better estimate their own uncertainty. It worked.

  • Richard G says:

    Did these tests also look at people who perhaps ‘over think’ situations? In my experience, the tendency to think more deeply about a situational change of some uncertainty, results in what could be interpreted as intolerance to uncertainty. For example, some people would be quite happy with, ‘I’ll see you tonight.’ Others may need, ‘I’ll see you tonight at 8 pm.’ Whilst others would require, ‘I’ll see you tonight at 8 pm at Matt’s Place.’ I would suggest that more complete communication from those requesting a changed situation, could help to reduce intolerance to uncertainty and change the bias of those who normally respond in a negative way to proposed change.

    This was also a relatively small study and excluded an equal number of men. I actually wonder whether women find it easier to overcome interpretation bias, as compared to men, in certain situations(?)

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