The ambiguous crossroad

Imogen Mathews reflects on the themes and evidence underlying her artwork.

My crossroad artwork reflects on how people take different directions in deciding how to take action in the face of ambiguity/uncertainty.

To quote Pliny the Edler, in his theory of natural history, the ‘one certainty is that nothing is certain’. And yet we seem to have built a world that thrives on insecurity. It seems our species uniquely possesses this ability to critically assess the past and worry about the future, which has created an intolerance for the uncertainty (IU). By understanding, predicting and controlling, we can learn what makes us feel secure. 

Uncertainty research became particularly attractive after World War 2, where people's attitudes towards novelty were crucial to understanding for rebuilding their version of a new norm. However, with our modern access to instant pervasive information, the concept around intolerance/tolerance for uncertainty has needed reconstruction. Modern life has become so well-informed, with media communicating every intricate detail. Therefore, any unexpected situations may trigger discomfort and fear. Our lives are laced with moments of uncertainty; waiting for an operation, Brexit and now Covid-19. Our transition through waves of Covid-19 will be a real test for uncertainty tolerance, and our resilience to the uncomfortable outcomes we may face. 

The need to understand

On one extreme of the IU scale, showing how we cope with ‘not knowing’, is resilience. At the other end, anxiety disorders. University College London research showed how participants would rather experience an electric shock than leaving unpleasantness to chance when playing a computer game with snakes disguised behind rocks. If a snake was uncovered, an electric shock was triggered. Their responses were measured via pupil dilation and sweat production. They found people were more stressed if they were unsure as to whether the shock would even emerge. According to Benjamin Rosser at Liverpool John Moore's University: "it's the state that uncertainty generates… if you are in a situation where the outcome could be positive or negative, you're in a preparatory state of mind and you're less prepared for either outcome." 

This ‘need to understand’ in this current pandemic might be that people would rather know if they have/had coronavirus (with testing) compared to hyper-analysing their unexplained symptoms. Unpacking this research seems useful when applying it to our amplified uncertain world after lockdown. How we will survive psychologically appears to be through understanding how we behave towards uncertainty, and what we need to do to manage it better. When we face uncertain prospects that terrify us, it increases the likelihood of us magnifying the 'What if's', according to Frances Meeten at the University of Sussex. Furthermore, the experts lack of understanding the pandemic’s behaviour risks adding a further dimension of uncertainty that, in turn, generates distorted perceptions and an increase in fear. After the Ebola outbreak, experts remarked: "although facts can't overcome fear, perhaps we can prepare people to accept that the facts will change." 

Six months on, two attitudes towards uncertainty might arise. For some, healthier attitudes will arise to drastic change where we no longer hold high expectations and have reached acceptance. For example, Kings College London research showed that 48% of the UK had accepted their new circumstances in their Ipsos MORI survey. Others may be vulnerable to the negative emotions they have indulged during the lockdown, with 44% suffering recorded in King's study. Losiak describes this neuroticism as "our inclination for rumination and our attentional bias towards all negative aspects of the present." 

We respond to stressful events differently. Our ability to tolerate periods living in limbo has decreased over time, with Covid-19 causing the most significant in-transit feeling. It may be true that nothing in life is guaranteed but going forward we could learn from this pandemic despite political ambiguity. This virus has certainly rattled our sense of security, but it may foster new and healthier attitudes.   

Tolerance and intolerance

Dr Maria Chumakova and Dr Sergey Kornilov, at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, studied an undergraduate sample to identify four latent variables for attitudes towards uncertainty. Intolerance for uncertainty was reflected in a fear profile, and tolerance for uncertainty as an acceptance/adaptability profile. Chumakova then included two more profiles which showed how uncertainty responses are not rigid, with further ‘ambivalent’ and ‘coping’ profiles. 

The tolerant profile was the most common, where they saw uncertainty as a challenging opportunity for self-expression and development. The intolerant profiles, including ambivalent, coping and fear, were common; however, their attitudes were dependent on the source of uncertainty and subjective evaluation. The recognition for regaining control in these groups was for the environment to be simple and clear, especially amongst the coping and fearing. The ‘ambivalent’ had high expectations for predictability and clarity in personal relationships, but interestingly not for their environment. Ambivalent types seemed to view uncertainty as both threatening and mildly attractive. More behaviour research is needed here, but this pandemic will offer ecological validity in its worldwide uncertainty experiment for how humans make decisions to achieve certainty. 

Life in limbo

Many of us are mimicking a monk-life of simplicity, with technology as our companion. Interestingly, David Richardson showed how monks, when engaging with compassion meditation, showed significant activity in the insula – critical for detecting emotions and mapping bodily response to them, such as heart rate and blood pressure. Practising compassion will undoubtedly change how we choose to live our lives. Indeed, reflecting on how you deal with uncertainty and realising it is malleable by changing your attitude, is the most persuasive message here. As Kate Sweeny at the University of California states, another way of looking at this is ‘plan for the worst, expect the best’. Overall, our attitudes reflect our internal representations of uncertainty. Finding harmony between our transformation of a situation, and the subjective uncertainty that needs to be resolved, will refresh our perspectives.

As a recent graduate, the state of not knowing what next is a normal feeling after finishing university. Working on the front line, but not in my desired discipline, naturally increases my uncertainty. I am unsure when I will have the chance to develop my career. However, through resilience, my uncertainty about the future navigates towards feelings of acceptance and changing my attitude has become productive. Viktor Frankl’s words particularly resonate with me now, in his book Man’s search for meaning. Frankl experienced the loss of everything, never knowing whether he would be alive the next day, after surviving the holocaust. Frankl shows how in the face of existential crisis, “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying." Furthermore, Frankl followed with "He who has a why to live can bear almost anyhow." This attitude to life suggests that a better approach is to live life more in acceptance of what is, to go with its flow, rather than forever seeking to protect ourselves from its dangers. For too long our society has propagated fear, and even used fear of the world as a driver for the financial prosperity of modern civilisation… to the detriment of its mental wellbeing.

-       Imogen Mathews is a postgraduate with an MSc in Psychology


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