top of page

Shocking uncertainty


What's worse? The pain from something bad happening, or the fear of whether and when it is going to happen?


Let's take a look at some examples.

Loewenstein anticipation and valutation

First, let's start with this George Loewenstein’s study above (PDF of the study is attached at the end of this page). 30 undergraduates were asked how much they would pay to avoid a 120-volt electric shock if it was to be delivered in three hours, twenty-four hours, three days, a year, or ten years' time.


Take a look at the line labelled "shock" in the graph - participants saw no major difference with an unpleasant electric shock immediately, in 3 hours, 1 day, or 3 days' time; they would pay about the same amount to avoid shocks during this period. However, notice that the graph starts to spike upwards thereafter. Participants were willing to pay about 25% more to avoid the same shock in a year's time. They were willing to pay almost double to avoid the same electric shock in ten years.

So the same unpleasant outcome, an electric shock, is costed differently over time. If it happens fairly soon, it's seen to be relatively less unpleasant. But if we had to wait a longer period of over a year, we start costing it much more. Since it is the same shock, it is the "wait" that makes the difference. 

For the second experiment, we turn to Gregory Berns at Emory University


32 volunteers agreed to have electric shocks delivered to their feet (the undergraduate life is a life of peril, but hey, all for the sake of learning eh?). This occurred while they were placed in an fMRI brain scanner, where Berns and team were able to observe brain activity (a brain scanner reduces inaccurate reporting from participants).

In phase one of the experiment, 96 shocks were delivered, where the intensity of shocks and the waiting time between shocks were varied, i.e. volunteers did not know when or how bad the shock would be.


In phase two of the experiment, volunteers were given a choice to just wait for shocks to happen (like phase 1), or to get it over with sooner. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of participants (84%) preferred to get the electric shocks over with quickly rather than endure the delays.

Even more interesting, 28% of subjects dreaded the delays so much that they were willing to endure stronger shocks simply to avoid the wait.

The brain scans help us to understand more. Volunteers with the greatest dread - those who were the most eager to get it over and done with - not also showed the most significant activity in the regions of the brain processing pain, but also exhibited the most amount of attention.


The activation of pain is easy enough to understand: emotionally dreading a painful event is painful in and by itself. We probably all have some experience of this in our daily lives.


The second observation on attention is equally important - the more attention we pay to something, the more dread is felt, and this draws even more attention, which leads to even more dread. The dread of a negative outcome becomes a dread of the dreading of the negative outcome. The outcome itself hasn't changed, but constantly thinking about it causes more fear, stress, and unhappiness.  

Berns and fellow researcher Tor Wager of Columbia University believes this can be an empowering finding. It shows that if we can find a way to distract ourselves, then we reduce the chance of us making ourselves feel more terrible. Take for an example having a dedicated plan to occupy patients before they go for an operation. This eases the stressful dread on the patient, even as the operation itself is the same. 

Our third and final example comes from a group of scientists at the Univesity College of London. The full study covered a variety of areas relating to uncertainty, stress, and performance. But the finding in particular that relates is this: subjects who were told that they have a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock were far more stressed than those who were told they would definitely receive the same shock.

Several points to conclude:

It's natural that we fear negative outcomes. They cause us pain - physically, emotionally, or cognitively.

But there's a second layer of fear/pain beyond the outcome itself. This comes from:

  • Uncertainty: not knowing when a negative outcome will occur; and

  • Dread: the wait for a certain negative outcome to occur, especially if it is a long wait. 

The irony is that the pain/fear of uncertainty or dread is self-created, and could be larger than the actual negative outcome itself. Ultimately, we are the ones that decide how much pain/fear is generated in this second layer of uncertainty and dread. The more attention we place on this, the more fear/pain we feel. 

So what can we do to lessen our fears/pain?


For layer 2, the fear/pain of uncertainty and dread, we can remind ourselves that what we feel rarely makes any difference to the outcome. We can choose to distract ourselves, to occupy our own attention. 


For layer 1: the fear of a negative outcome itself, which might make us hesitant to try new things or debilitated by possible failure, check out the pieces on:


bottom of page