Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part, But You Can Make It Easier

Fixating on potential bad news only makes it worse.

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I still remember the wait to find out whether I had gotten into the college of my choice. I applied early and was told that letters would be mailed out on December 15. The ensuing weeks were filled with occasional bouts of stress and a lot of thoughts about whether I would get in. The last few days were particularly difficult as I waited for the mail to come. On the day that the letter finally arrived, I put it down on the kitchen table and did a few chores before finally sitting down and opening it. 

That kind of waiting experience is common. Admissions decisions, medical test results, job applications—all involve some period of time where you have to wait to get news, but there is little or nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the decision.

An interesting paper by Kate Sweeny and Sara Andrews in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines how these such waiting periods unfold.

They studied 50 people who took the California Bar exam. There is a 4-month waiting period between taking the exam and getting the test score, and passing it is crucial for people who want to practice law.

Participants completed a series of personality measures prior to taking the exam. Then the researchers took measures of anxiety and various strategies people used to deal with anxiety at four points in the process—the day after the exam; 6 weeks after; 12 weeks after; and the day before getting the score.

As you might expect, people were very anxious a day after taking the exam. That anxiety went down a bit at the 6-week mark and then began to creep back up. And people were quite anxious a day before getting their scores. One of the behaviors that went along with anxiety was rumination—the tendency to think repeatedly about the source of one's anxiety and to worry about the outcome. The more anxiety people experienced, the more they tended to ruminate.

A specific set of personality characteristics was associated with lower levels of anxiety, the researchers found. People who have a general tolerance for uncertainty were less anxious (particularly early on) than those with an intolerance for it. (However, as the date for getting the test results approached, everyone got nervous.) This tolerance for uncertainty is related to another characteristic called need for closure, which reflects how much people like to be done with things. The higher people’s need for closure, the more they were anxious about waiting (particularly early in the waiting period).

Two other personality characteristics were also important: defensive pessimism and dispositional optimism. Defensive pessimism is a person’s tendency to assume the worst outcome while waiting. Dispositional optimism is the tendency to assume things will work out well in the end. When people are highly optimistic and low in defensive pessimism, they tend to ruminate much less than when they are low in optimism and high in defensive pessimism. 

The researchers created a composite of these four characteristics, because they tended to be similar within a person. That is, people who were tolerant of uncertainty were also generally low in need for closure, high in optimism, and low in defensive pessimism. 

A high value on this composite was generally related to healthier approaches to waiting than a low value on this composite. For example, people with a high composite personality score spent less time bracing themselves for bad news than people with a low composite. They also spent more time trying to be optimistic and had high levels of hope that the outcome would be positive. People tried to distance themselves from the outcome as well. This worked for some, early on, but as the actual date of getting the test score got closer, it got harder for people to distance themselves.

What does all of this mean?

First, it is worth getting to know yourself a bit to understand how you deal with waiting for news. The more tolerant you are of uncertainty, the lower your need for closure—that is, the less you need things to be complete. And the more optimistic and less pessimistic your outlook, the better you cope with waiting for news.

If you happen to be someone who finds waiting particularly difficult, then, what can you do? 

Purely from the standpoint of dealing with anxiety, it is useful to help yourself stop ruminating about an outcome and to avoid spending time preparing yourself for the worst. Those behaviors are associated with a high level of anxiety and all its associated costs.

If you find it hard to stop thinking about an outcome, it is helpful to find ways to think about other things. After all, you can’t affect the outcome while you are waiting, so you simply should not spend too much time worrying about it. Instead, think about other things. Focus on other aspects of your life. Exercise, play a musical instrument, go out with friends. Do things that are unrelated to the news you are waiting for.

All that said, when the time for getting the news is very close, it will be hard to avoid thinking about it. At that point, you actually might want to spend at least a little time planning for what you would do if things do not go your way. It can be helpful to have at least the outline of a plan for what will happen if you get bad news—but there is no point in starting that planning process too early.

 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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