Making decisions in the new world: How to deal with increasing ambiguity


The most important questions almost always lack clear answers. Should you grow your business by increasing marketing efforts for your current products or by creating new ones? Should you try and get promoted in your current organisation or leave and go somewhere else? Should you get married and start a family or move to Bali, give up showers, and attempt to bring down capitalism by playing political songs on your sitar?

Both our work lives and personal lives are full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Every day we are forced to make decisions with limited information. And as our world becomes increasingly complex, we are destined to face more ambiguity than ever before.

Scientists have known for a long time that humans have an inherent aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty. Research has shown that when people make decisions, they tend to choose the outcome that is most predictable over the outcome that is ambiguous. While this may not be surprising, this preference has been shown to hold even when the more ambiguous option is clearly more advantageous. This means that our need for certainty can lead us to make decisions that are clearly not in our best interests.

Our brains are wired to avoid ambiguity.

Neuroscientists have discovered that as ambiguity increases, there is increased activation of the amygdala and orbito prefrontal cortex, both of which are associated with emotional processing and fear responses. They have also observed a subsequent decline in striatal dopaminergic activity — which is a critical part of the reward system in the brain.

Interestingly, people who struggle most with the ambiguity of the future tend to have a larger striatum — the brain region responsible for fuelling reward for predictability. Thus, perhaps one day, surgeons will start offering stratial reduction surgery for aspiring entrepreneurs. They may even offer it as part of an exclusive Elon Musk Package where they also remove your desire for work-life balance and throw in bonus hair plugs.

So… where does our aversion to ambiguity come from?

We know that reward systems in the brain change based on our experiences throughout life. Therefore, the environments we grow up in may play a critical role in reinforcing our aversion to ambiguity. For example, the fact that the educational system focuses predominantly on black or white and yes or no answers might be affecting how our brains’ reward systems develop. If the core motivation for students is to be “correct” rather than to acquire a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and paradoxes, it is plausible that the brain’s reward systems might adapt to preferring certainty over ambiguity.

Although our aversion to ambiguity may be somewhat learnt, there are good reasons to think that our aversion is also somewhat hardwired. For example, ambiguity aversion has even been observed in our small furry cousins, the Rhesus monkeys, who have been shown to vastly prefer known probabilities over unknown probabilities.

Many human drives and biases evolved to solve specific problems that are now irrelevant. A classic example is the the drive to eat fattening foods. Each time I walk past a KFC , I feel a powerful primal desire that would have served my ancestors well when fattening food was scarce. But today, that same desire will lead to an inevitable shame spiral if I succumb to it. Similarly, the desire to avoid ambiguity would have made sense for our ancestors but is less functional in our modern world. For our ancestors, survival was directly related to how well they could predict the world around them (it is best to avoid the yellow berries when there are plenty of blueberries that you already know won’t kill you).

Today, the tables have turned and our aversion to ambiguity is often a hindrance rather than a help. And although our physical survival may not be at stake, the survival of our careers and organisations most certainly is. If we can not learn to embrace ambiguity, we are doomed to be left behind.

The way we deal with ambiguity has real consequences.

There are a number of ways in which our aversion to ambiguity can handicap us. One striking example is in the domain of creativity. Research has revealed that ambiguity aversion can lead many people to exhibit a distinct bias against creativity, whereby their ability to recognise a creative idea is considerably diminished. I recently observed this bias first hand when my extremely ambiguity averse friends failed to recognise the genius in my idea for “Party Portaloos” — portable toilets equipped with disco balls, strobe lights, and industrial rave music.

Those who are able to tolerate ambiguity often reap a host of benefits as a result. Research has shown that people who are more comfortable with ambiguity tend to have greater life satisfaction, experience more positive emotion, feel less threatened by the environment or others, experience less anxiety, be more entrepreneurial, be better managers, take more risks, have greater self confidence, and be more open to new experiences. The list of benefits associated with ambiguity tolerance sounds eerily similar to those listed in a Scientology pamphlet I once received. However, the good news is that you can achieve all of these benefits without sacrificing your life savings and pledging allegiance to the alien overlords.

There are a number of ways that we can increase our comfort with ambiguity or learn to compensate for our aversion to ambiguity. These include increasing mindfulness, focusing on process over outcomes, and thinking probabilistically.

Increase mindfulness.

There is a lot of “woo” surrounding mindfulness. Unfortunately, many of the most vocal proponents of mindfulness are also those that are most likely to try and cure your foot fungus with a crystal they bought in Byron Bay. However, at its core, mindfulness is really just about attention. Whenever we have a desire that we want to subvert, the first step to bring conscious awareness to it and to recognise the feeling for what it is.

Feelings are not facts. Feeling hungry doesn’t mean you must eat. Feeling like you want to taser your boss doesn’t mean you have to. Likewise, the uncomfortable feelings associated with ambiguity don’t always need to be heeded.

Whenever you are faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, pay close attention to the sensations that accompany it. Learn to accept any feelings of discomfort. Observe them as they arrive, build, wash over you and eventually subside. As time goes on, this mindfulness practice will enable you to develop a greater level of acceptance and comfort with ambiguity.

Don’t focus on making the right decision, focus on making the decision right.

An inevitable consequence of living in an unpredictable world is that we will sometimes make wrong predictions. We can’t possibly access or process all the information we need to predict the future. Therefore, all we can do is make the best decisions we can with the limited information we have at hand.

Let's say that I was the kind of person that liked to bet on the outcome of the reality TV show ‘The Bachelorette” (completely hypothetically of course). It would make sense for me to bet on the guy to win who appears to have the most genuine connection with the Bachelorette, who had the strongest hometown performance, and who has the most tear inducing backstory. If by chance, the Bachelorette was to have a mini-stroke the night before the Final Rose, which caused her to choose the guy who she was least suited for, then I would still have made the right decision. This is because I could never had anticipated the Bachelorette’s stroke and so my decision was the “right” one based on the information I had access to.

One of the best ways to address the unpredictability associated with ambiguity is by focusing on process goals over outcome goals. Outcomes are often out of our control — due to the vast number of extraneous factors at play, whereas process, on the other hand, is very much within our control.

Lets say that my aim was to achieve international blog stardom with legions of pop-science obsessed nerds hanging on my every written word. I could focus on the outcome goal of having a blog post go massively viral (think the Salt Bae of psychology blog posts), but this outcome is not really in my control. Instead, it would be better for me to set process goals comprising metrics such as time spent per article, number of articles posted, amount of research per blog, amount of feedback solicited, etc.

Research has shown that under conditions of uncertainty people tend to judge other people’s performance on the basis of outcomes — regardless of the quality of decision making that lead to those outcomes. This tendency is known as the outcome bias and has serious implications for the way we evaluate job performance in organisations. Thus, if you are a leader in an organisation that faces a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, you can help others embrace ambiguity by helping to create a culture that values process over outcomes. Work to create an organisation where people are held accountable and rewarded for the way they go about their work — not just for the result of their work.

Think probabilistically.

Almost nothing in life is certain. To thrive in an increasingly ambiguous world, we must give up our desire for black and white answers and embrace the grey. One of the most powerful benefits I received from all my years of scientific training was the ability to think in terms of probabilities. You’ll almost never hear a real scientist use the word “proved” (it is almost as cringe inducing as the word moist). Instead, they speak in terms of how “likely” something is to be true or correct. This is a fundamentally different approach to understanding the world than most people adopt.

All decision making should be based on the best evidence possible (hopefully I don’t need to convince you of this). However, we are often forced to make decisions with incomplete and even conflicting evidence. In these cases, we need to learn to categorise decision options based on whether they are more or less likely to be “right”. As new information comes in, we should add it to the appropriate pile and update those likelihoods — then pay attention to whether those likelihoods change enough to warrant a change in course of action. In other words, we need to avoid dogmatic commitments to a single option, and instead focus on continually assessing and re-evaluating all the possible options based on the best evidence available to us.

To truly thrive in the new world, we must learn to override a drive that is central to who we are as human beings — our aversion to ambiguity. It may not be easy, but it is necessary. I encourage you to reflect on the ambiguity and uncertainty that you face in your own life and consider how you might learn to adapt and embrace ambiguity — you’ll be a better person for it.

Joel Davies