Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Living With Uncertainty

“Yeah, but I could be the one!!!”

Do you fear that you might get contaminated if you use the public restroom? Do you worry that you might lose all your money in the market? Do you worry that your plane might crash? Do you fear that you might get attacked by a terrorist if you travel to Europe? Are you ruminating every night that your partner might leave you? What do each of these worries and ruminations have in common? It’s the intolerance of uncertainty. In each case, you might have considered the probability of these things happening.

What is the probability of getting killed by a terrorist? Almost zero. What is the probability that the plane will crash? Almost zero. Or, that you will lose all your money in the market? Almost zero.

But then you say, “Yes, but it could happen!!”

Probability vs. Possibility

The difficulty that you have is that you are trying to get certainty in an uncertain world. Rather than think about this in terms of probabilities, you think about possibility. But it is impossible to rule out possibility. It’s always possible that you could get contaminated, you could lose all your money, you could get killed by a terrorist, etc. Anything is possible. Ruling out possibility is impossible.

The only statements that are necessarily true—or certain—are statements that are “true by definition” or “true by logical deduction”. For example, “If A>B and B>C, then it necessarily follows that A>C”. But in the real world of events and objects we cannot say that it is necessarily true that the plane will arrive safely. It’s always possible. But the question should be, “Is it probable?”

Equating Uncertainty with a Bad Outcome

If you worry you are likely to equate uncertainty with a bad outcome. Your thinking is something like this:

  • I can’t be sure.
  • I could be the one.
  • That’s unacceptable.
  • I should worry about it.

But uncertainty is not necessarily a bad outcome. It’s a possible outcome—along with neutral, good, and excellent outcomes. Yes, the plane could crash, but “could crash” does not equal “will crash." Let’s take another uncertainty. I could buy a ticket to the New York Lottery and hope to win first prize. It’s possible. I can even FEEL LUCKY. But I also know that the chances today are 45 million to one against me.

You Already Accept Uncertainty

The good news is that you already accept uncertainty. You walk across the street, you get into a car, you eat food in restaurants, you purchase products, you travel, you start conversations, you ask for advice. In each case, you don’t know for sure what is going to happen, but you accept uncertainty. If you demanded uncertainty for everything you would be frozen in your chair.

So, try this experiment: Think of all the things that you are planning on doing today and ask yourself if you have absolute certainty for these behaviors. But you still will take action—without certainty. You will play the odds.

Rejecting Base Rates

There is no way that you can get absolute certainty about events in the real world. You are not living in a world of logical syllogisms. So, how should we look at probabilities? One way is to think about base rates. A base rate is the frequency of an occurrence in a population. Let’s say that you have a headache. If you are prone to health anxiety you might jump to the conclusion, “I have a brain tumor." Of course, that is possible and it is also possible that you could have a brain tumor without a headache. But the question should be, “What percent of people have headaches?” and “What percent of people have brain tumors?” and “What percent of people with brain tumors have headaches?” Do you know anyone who has NEVER had a headache? If everyone has headaches at some time and if brain tumors are rare, then the probability is very low that your headache is a brain tumor.

We ignore base rates when we are trying to get certainty. For example, you might fear that the plane will crash but the statistics show that domestic air travel is the safest mode of long distance travel and it is getting even safer.

So, let’s assume that you want to continue living in the real world—the world of uncertainty. You are not going to live in Groundhog Day World where you know for sure what happens each day. In fact, if you had absolute certainty about everything you would have another problem—Boredom. Think about probability, uncertainty as a neutral, think about all the uncertainty and accept the base rates. To learn more about how to handle uncertainty and defeat your worries see my book, The Worry Cure.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today