Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty. We’d rather receive a bad piece of news as soon as possible than put up with not knowing whether it will turn out to be good or not. I imagine that we’ve all experienced this feeling. Medical science and psychology have set about researching this area, and have confirmed that we are indeed built this way.

The first piece of research that we’re going to look was carried out at the University of Maastricht. As we’ll see, you can’t deny that sometimes scientists are extremely inventive at dreaming up experiments (and you also can’t deny that some people will volunteer for anything). In this particular experiment, the participants were subjected to a series of 20 electric shocks. One group was told that they would receive a sharp shock each time, whereas the other was told that in total they would receive 17 moderate and three sharp shocks, but without being told exactly when the sharp ones would come. Who was most afraid at the beginning of the experiment? The results showed that the participants who knew that there was only a small chance of receiving a sharp shock each time showed greater signs of fear –they sweated more and their heart beat more quickly- than those who were 100% sure that they were going to receive a sharp shock. This shows clearly that our mind prefers certainty -even the certainty of bad news- to uncertainty, even if the news might turn out to be positive.

Let’s take a look at another piece of research. This time there are no electric shocks, but a troublesome illness. A colostomy is an unpleasant operation in which the colon is re-organized so that the body’s waste can be expelled through a small tube inserted in the abdomen. A study carried out at the University of Michigan focused on patients who had permanent or possibly reversible colostomies. Six months after their operation, the patients whose situation was permanent were happier than those who thought that one day they might get back to their old life. Why? Because the first group had no room for doubt and so could accept their situation, while the second group couldn’t deal with the uncertainty of their position, even though the promise was held out that one day things might return to normal. This research leads to an interesting conclusion. We are capable of adapting to an unpleasant situation if we are convinced that there is absolutely no possibility that it will change.

One final piece of research. Psychologists at the University of British Columbia studied people who had been given a genetic test to determine their risk of developing a neurodegenerative disorder called Huntington’s disease. The people who had been told that they were very likely to develop the condition were happier a year after getting the results than those who didn’t know their likelihood of contracting Huntington’s disease. Why? Once again, because the first group was sure of their situation, while the second just didn’t know.

The conclusion: When there is a possibility of unpleasant news, our brain prefers to have a definitive answer, because this is the only way that it can accept the situation, face up to it, and overcome it. This leads to an important reflection about how badly some companies are acting when, for example, there are rumours about possible lay-offs and clear communication from management is not forthcoming. Based on the research we’ve been looking at, we would rather know the bad news (and, I might add, to be treated as adults), than being greeted with a silence that forces us to live through the torture of uncertainty. We can also apply this to situations where we have to give someone else bad news. We often try to do them a favour by delaying the conversation or by trying to put a band-aid on the problem. However, research has shown that if we have to give someone bad news, it’s better to be direct and to reduce any possible uncertainty, rather than to beat about the bush and to treat the other person with kid gloves. If we proceed correctly, the recipient of the news will clearly understand the situation and will therefore be in a position to come to accept it.


Our mind prefers certainty, even though it receives bad news, to the uncertainty of not knowing what the news is.


  1. If you are waiting for some news that might be bad, imagine the worst and prepare a plan of action. Your uncertainty will not disappear, but at least you will be able to reduce its effect on you.
  2. If you are faced with an apparently unpleasant situation, it’s important to remember that we can rebuild our happiness after some time has passed, once our initial uncertainty has been reduced.
  3. When you have to give someone negative information, remember that it’s better for them to be told clearly rather than to have to put up with uncertainty.


Arntz, A., Van Eck, M., & de Jong, P. J. (1992). Unpredictable sudden increases in intensity of pain and acquired fearJournal of Psychophysiology, 6, 54-64.

Wiggins, S., Whyte, P., Higgins, M., Adam, S., Theilmann, J., Bloch, M., et al. (1992). The psychological consequences of predictive testing for Huntington’s disease: Canadian collaborative study of predictive testing. New England Journal of Medicine, 327, 1401-1405.

Smith, D. M., Loewenstein, G., Jankovich, A., & Ubel, P. A. (2007). The dark side of hope: Lack of adaptation to temporary versus permanent colostomy, unpublished manuscript.


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