Curious in finding out if there have been any psychological studies done on uncertainty & what the results of those studies have been.

Have there been any frameworks or methodologies on combating uncertainty from a psychological perspective? Assuming uncertainty is a negative experience for most people.

  • $\begingroup$ you might enjoy this mooc from ANU all about ignorance, particularly the first section on different kinds of uncertainty: www.edx.org/course/ignorance $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2020 at 3:16

2 Answers 2


When uncertain about a decision and you are aiming for an optimal outcome, Hastie and Dawes (2009), suggest that the choice be 1) based on your current assets (money, physiological state, psychological capacities, relationships, and feelings). 2) It is based on the possible consequences of the choice. 3) When the consequences are uncertain, their likelihood is evaluated using the basic rules of probability theory. 4) It is a choice that is adaptive to the constraints of those probabilities and the values or satisfactions associated with each of the possible consequences of the choice.

As for some of the mechanisms at play when making a decision the authors provide some advice, such as focusing on the future and not the past (sunk costs), avoiding cohesive conclusions based on random data or what you "know" (texas sharpshooter and conjunction fallacies, respectively). They also point out that fast somatic markers (emotion, feeling, mood, and evaluation) typically shrink large choice sets, which contain fewer options but allow a more thoughtful cost-benefit evaluation. They use overemphasized happiness as an example of this being a bad idea and suggest taking a more thorough look at other aspects of a decision. Along with that they also recommend spelling out many of the relevant events and really thinking through the "reasons for" and "reasons against" the occurrence of each event which can help increase the quality of judgments under ignorance.

They also list some common decision-making procedures that have no relation to rational choice. 1) Habit, or choosing what we had chosen before. 2) Conformity, or making the choice you think most other people would make. 3) religious principles or cultural mandates, choosing as we have been taught by our parents and authorities.

There is also Kahneman (2011), who found that our brain has two modes one really fast and the other slow and deliberate, we tend to rely on the fast mode more than we should in decision making and the many bias and heuristics that come with faster choices can make us more confident in our decision-making but may not give us the most optimal outcome.

The two references provided overlap and seem to work off of each other in one way or another. They both come to the conclusion that optimal decision making is made more deliberately than based on some of the fallacies and biases that we tend to rely on for quick choices in our day-to-day. None the less, they do provide excellent examples of understanding and knowledge of how to deal with uncertainty.


Hastie, R., & Dawes, R. M. (2009). Rational choice in an uncertain world: The psychology of judgment and decision making. Sage Publications.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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    $\begingroup$ Another great reference on the topic is: Fischhoff, B., Lichtenstein, S., & Derby, S. L. (1983). Acceptable risk. Cambridge University Press. $\endgroup$
    – user17122
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 4:39

What do you mean by uncertainty? Is it internal or external? I am heavily a category learning person, so I begin there. Even like that, there are many ways you can approach this:

Uncertainty can be when you encounter something novel and have to generalize your experience to complete a task or make sense of things. People can behave systematically in those situation, many times irrationally. A good example is the inverse base-rate effect. One theory says that this behaviour results from the way you allocate attention in the new situation. Have a read or a google scholar search. I selected some papers

I fun new one I liked:

  • Don, H. J., Beesley, T., & Livesey, E. J. (2019). Learned predictiveness models predict opposite attention biases in the inverse base-rate effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Animal Learning and Cognition. https://doi.org/10.1037/xan0000196

The big old ones, very influential papers in the field:

  • Kruschke, J. K. (1996). Base Rates in Category Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22(1), 3–26.
  • Medin, D. L., & Edelson, S. M. (1988). Problem structure and the use of base-rate information from experience. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117(1), 68–85. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.117.1.68

At the moment, this approach does not combat uncertainty. The inverse base-rate effect results from specific psychological mechanisms. That is to say, the way you generalize your experience to something yet unseen.

Uncertainty can be probabilistic. You can encounter events that might have many outcomes. When you see those events, you simply don't know what outcome will occur. But you might have some probabilistic knowledge - meaning one outcome is more probable. This has been shown for example to affect the way you explore the environment, including the choices you have. People in reinforcement learning study these topics a lot. Here is a really fun paper:

  • Boldt, A., Blundell, C., & De Martino, B. (2019). Confidence modulates exploration and exploitation in value-based learning. Neuroscience of consciousness, 2019(1), niz004.

Here, uncertainty results from learning and the way you organize the information you process. Here is an interesting study from learning:

  • Jones, P. M., Zaksaite, T., & Mitchell, C. J. (2019). Uncertainty and blocking in human causal learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 45(1), 111.

In this sense, uncertainty can be battled by simply learning more and gathering more information.

Another approach to this is that of the Drift Diffusion Model (DDM). DDM treats uncertainty as internal noise (the noise generated by the way the brain accumulates information). If uncertainty (the internal noise)is high, then you will make more errors, will be slow at gathering information. Here is yet another paper:

The same is true here. Over time, your experience will help you reduce uncertainty. This is done by simply skewing your knowledge toward making a correct response when you encounter the same situation.

Uncertainty is a bad experience. I think it is simply not true. You have to remember that people are quite adept at dealing with whatever things come at them. The above references show you that people employ interesting strategies and behave in a very specific way in the face of uncertainty. If you want to make it a bad experience, you have to add something else as well: stress; pressure; threat; etc...

I think the way to go about it is to see how people generalize what they know to new situations, because uncertainty often arises from not knowing.


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