Today is Groundhog Day. In Ontario, Wiarton Willie predicted an early spring. However, Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam, as well as Punxsutawney Phil in the U.S., saw their shadows and predicted six more weeks of winter. A CBC headline said “polarization” has now spread to Groundhog Day.
It was tongue in cheek, but people do love certainty.
We see it every day in the media. Weather forecasts try to pinpoint conditions by the week, day and hour. Across platforms, pundits make predictions like they’re gospel, about everything from politics, to the stock market, to who’s going to win the Super Bowl. In reporting, complex issues are often reduced to either-or binary options. And experts are mocked because the science on which they offered guidance has, quite understandably, evolved.
It’s only natural. We’re wired to avoid uncertainty.
Writing in Psychology Today, David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, described the brain as a prediction machine. He said we devote enormous volumes of neuronal resources to calculating what will happen next.
At any given time, Rock noted, we pay attention to around 40 environmental cues. That’s consciously. Subconsciously, it’s over 2 million. We process patterns, and the predictable outcomes are comforting.
“A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or alert response in your limbic system,” wrote Rock. “Your brain detects something is wrong, and your ability to focus on other issues diminishes. Your brain doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided.”
Credible knowledge matters. Facts matter. But in the absence of a crystal ball, it’s okay to be unsure. Sometimes, that may increase rather than erode trust when it comes to the news.
A study published in 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported in ScienceDaily, looked at how audiences perceived various headlines about statistical findings. Some numbers were presented as conclusive, others as estimates and ranges.
The researchers found that even when audiences realized that data held uncertainty, there was little to no negative effect on their levels of trust in the data, the experts who provided it, or the journalists who reported it.
“Estimated numbers with major uncertainties get reported as absolutes. This can affect how the public views risk and human expertise, and it may produce negative sentiment if people end up feeling misled,” said Dr. Anne Marthe van der Bles, who led the study at the University of Cambridge’s Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication.
The researchers urged experts and media outlets to be more open about the variety of possibilities and the unknowable. If anything, that’s even more important at a time when certain outlets prey on people’s uncertainties.
“Disinformation often appears definitive, and fake news plays on a sense of certainty,” said Sander van der Linden, a co-author of the study and director of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab. “Increasing accuracy when reporting a number, by including an indication of its uncertainty, provides the public with better information. We’d like to see the cultivation of psychological comfort around the fact that knowledge and data always contain uncertainty. One way to help people navigate today’s news environment is by being honest about what we don’t know. Our work suggests people can handle the truth.”
Maybe the only thing certain is uncertainty. Whether we’re talking about news stories or groundhog forecasts, not everything is black and white. Whatever those rodents say, we’ll have some sunny and some bleak winter days ahead. In other words, shades of grey.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
February 2, 2022