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Uncertainty and action

Hesitancy under uncertainty is observable across human activities. Here are a few relevant quotes from various sources that I heard recently.

In war

From an interview with a retired general Stanley McChrystal:

“When I was a brand-new lieutenant, I asked my father, “How would I know if somebody that I worked for or worked for me was going to be a good commander in combat? … How would you tell in peacetime?” He says, “You won’t. You won’t know because people have capabilities or coping mechanisms that in peacetime look fine, that doesn’t play well in war.”

Then I asked him, “Okay, when you’re in combat, how do you know?” He said, “Some people keep asking for more information and what they’re trying to do is drive uncertainty to zero so that there’s really not a question on the right course of action because you know everything. But you can’t do that. It’s not achievable. So they become hesitant. They become tentative, and they become focused on getting more and more information to ratchet the uncertainty out of the situation and they don’t act.”

At work

The quote above reminds me of James Clear’s Being In Motion vs. Taking Action, an excerpt from his book Atomic Habits:

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.

The statements below are all valid in some situations, but I often hear them as excuses when people struggle with ambiguity and potential failure.

  • “We need more research.”
  • “Let’s run another experiment.”
  • “I want to show my proposal to my colleagues again next month instead of key stakeholders because I think the proposal isn’t ready yet.”
  • “I don’t have time right now; I’m busy at the moment. I’ll take it on when things slow down a bit.”
  • “I need approval from my manager, but they are on vacation right now. I would prefer we wait.”

In life

When Professor Elissa Epel asked Andrew Huberman, “How much ease and relaxation would you feel at not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow?” and he answered that he would be somewhere in between, she explained:

And that’s not unusual. We have a scale to measure how comfortable people are with certainty. And what we are already knew was that being comfortable with uncertainty is a beautiful but rare, resilience factor. People who tolerate uncertainty have much less anxiety and depression, and when stressful things happen, they get over it more quickly. We measured this during the pandemic, and what we found was that intolerance of uncertainty pretty strongly predicted pandemic anxiety, PTSD, depression and distress about the [adverse climate events].

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