Why are we afraid of change? The science of uncertainty

August 15, 2016
Fear of change

Change is hard. We take it for granted that this is true, but we don’t always fully understand why it’s the case. The Unstuck team asked reporter Libby Copeland to investigate the science behind why we resist change. This is part one in a four-part series in which she shares what she learned. Read parts two, three, and four on how our fear of loss, habits, and relationships can get in the way of us making a change.

So many of us struggle to change careers, to leave a bad relationship, to go back to school. In my social circle, I can think of just two friends who are notably good at change; the rest (myself included) tend to freeze up when we consider breaking with the past in a significant way. Neuroscientist Dean Burnett’s new book, “Idiot Brain,” addresses the ways our brains trip us up. I asked him why humans might be wired to resist making changes even when we say we want them.

“In an evolutionary sense, the brain doesn’t like uncertainty. Anything uncertain is potentially a threat,” Burnett says.

Change is hard, but it doesn't have to be — with Unstuck Life CoursesIn talking to experts in areas including psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, I found four distinct categories that tend to hold us back from making changes. I’ll cover each in a separate post, starting with the prospect of uncertainty: why we appear wired to pay a lot of attention to it — and sometimes to dread it.

Why no news is worse than bad news

Imagine you’re on your way to an important work meeting. In one scenario, you get a flat tire and know for sure you’ll miss the meeting; in the other, you’re caught in stop-and-go traffic and don’t know if you’ll be late. Research suggests something surprising: we experience more stress when we don’t know if something bad is about to happen than when we know for sure it’s coming.

Neuroscientist Marc Lewis told me that stop-and-go traffic is more stressful because, for survival reasons, the brain is evolved to pay a lot of attention to uncertainty. When consequences are unpredictable, dopamine floods a relatively primitive part of the brain that he calls the “action center,” activating a “motor script that’s ready to swing into action,” with your pupils dilating and your attention narrowing. “You’re going to expend the most energy when the outcome is least predictable” and you have the greatest chance of influencing the odds, Lewis said.

There are times when uncertainty is appealing — Lewis has written that gamblers appear to get hooked by “unpredictable good fortune” — but the point is, we are inclined to fixate on the unknown. That’s true with long-term uncertainty as well, Lewis says. Anyone who’s waited on the college admissions process can attest to how psychologically taxing such drawn-out scenarios can be. “Long-term uncertainty is likely to lead to rumination, anxiety, cycling thoughts, and the development of expectations that will surely be biased by past experiences,” Lewis told me in a follow-up email. “We like to keep our future under (some semblance of) control.”

Our brains crave answers — now

Ah yes, control. Our brains appear built to crave immediate information. Happiness researcher Dan Gilbert has written that “human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.” We want to be able to imagine the future, and we want to be able to prepare for it. Uncertainty makes this awfully hard.

Journalist David McRaney, author of the best-selling book You Are Not So Smart,” told me that the brain seems wired to want to resolve unknowns. “When the brain is facing uncertainty, it creates certainty; when it faces meaninglessness, it creates meaning,” says McRaney, who is now at work on a book about how people change their minds. “When you are uncertain, you have that immediate emotional reaction that it needs to be resolved now, and you will devolve to the fastest, easiest, least-painful solution before you will to the best solution.”

Perhaps this could explain why if you’re considering applying for a dream job across the country you might become overwhelmed by the unknowns. If I don’t get it, will I be crushed? If I do get it, will I be good enough? Where would I live, anyway? At this point, you might decide to do the easiest thing of all, and simply not apply. (It’s probably not such a great job after all, right?) Of course, avoidance is a decision, too — a decision to maintain the status quo. You may do more and more research into what the job would be like, where you’d live, and who the other job applicants are. Trying to game the odds is useful up to a certain point, but it can eventually turn into a means of putting off change.

The appeal of doing nothing

“One of the most de-motivating things for human beings is uncertainty, and we avoid it at all costs. In fact, we will just do nothing if we’re not certain,” says Margaret King, the director of a Philadelphia think tank called the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, which studies the role of culture and human behavior in consumer choice. “We’re very, very hesitant to put resources at risk, and change is all about doing that.”

Of course, there are cognitive quirks that go the other way, too, pushing us to embrace risk. There’s the planning fallacy, in which people optimistically underestimate the amount of time involved in a project — a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s worked in construction, or tried to renovate their bathroom. Also, many people are excited by the prospect of novelty and adventure, a fact I’ll return to in a later post. It’s important to recognize that there are good reasons why people hesitate about making major changes that are not just because of biases or impulses from primitive parts of the brain.

“We don’t resist change because we’re neurotic or cowards,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger.” “The will to change and the desire to maintain sameness coexist for good reasons, and they’re both essential to our emotional health and to the continuity of our identity and our relationships and our stability.”

Plus, changes have unforeseen ripple effects. Lerner points out that a woman who wants to be more assertive in her marriage can’t know if her husband will change with her. This goes to the prospect of loss, a related theme that dominates our thinking when we consider trying something new. A new road means giving up on the one you’ve been traveling, and it turns out our brains do funny things when faced with letting go. I’ll explore this in my next post.

Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who has written for Slate, The New Republic, The Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Glamour and more. Previously she was a staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post for over a decade.

More advice on making a change in the face of uncertainty:

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