I had always been told hope is a hammer – breaking down barriers and opening up opportunities. But recently I’ve started to feel hope is corrosive. Hope hurts when uncertainty reigns, and for almost a year uncertainty has been our only certainty, making it impossible to plan anything, as nothing can be counted on. For a planner, that is disconcerting.
During the darkest days of 2020, client projects at The Fawnbrake Collective, the strategy consultancy I co-founded with Sera Holland, dried up. Clients could not think about brands and strategy; all focus was on business survival. It felt disconcerting to see what we valued so much not apparently being of much use. Uncertainty was eating our business and impacting how I was viewing the world, so I knew that I needed to understand uncertainty more strategically and set myself the task of exploring its psychology in more detail.
Uncertainty – or, to give it the scientific name, entropy (‘expected surprise’) – is the anticipation that outcomes will be other than expected and we are unable to avoid the surprise. Pandemic living feels like this: exhausting, because when humans try to control uncertainty we require considerable cerebral energy. The brain demands energy to make that shift and, if it cannot reduce uncertainty, a cerebral energy crisis develops.
The energy crisis of uncertainty can be unbearable. Humans prefer physical pain to psychological uncertainty. In 2016, a group of academics from UCL undertook a unique research project. Volunteers played a computer game in which they had to turn over rocks, some of which had poisonous snakes hidden underneath. If a snake moved then the player received a painful electric shock. Stress peaked when uncertainty was highest – when study participants knew 100% for sure they would receive a painful electric shock, they felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they had a 50% of getting the electric shock.
Uncertainty is so powerful that it can alter time – well, certainly the perception of time. In 2011, Transport for London (TfL) looked at London traffic crossings, investigating countdown clocks to see whether they were worth investing in and adding to pedestrian crossings on the London road system.
The conclusion indicated a clear preference and feelings of safety from those who used the countdown clock crossings versus the control, however the most fascinating finding was that pedestrians reported feeling less rushed when crossing the road. Pedestrians stated they had more time to cross when, in actual fact, the opposite was true. TfL had reduced the crossing time, so pedestrians had less time to cross but more agency and more certainty, and felt more positively about the experience.
Psychologist Edgar Elías Osuna established the two specific factors contributing most to discontent: waiting time and uncertainty – the minutes already lost to a wait and the uncertainty of how much delay remains. His data also revealed that this stress response is cancelled out when the individual knows how long the wait will be. It’s why this pandemic period of not knowing is so psychologically hard, because we have no way of knowing how long we have to live like this.
The challenge for us is how to add good uncertainty into our lives when we are working from home and can feel that we don’t have many options for experimentation.
When we do have sufficient certainty, our brain senses patterns, predicts next steps and operates more efficiently. When we don’t, we panic and make bad decisions. Academics at the California Institute of Technology imaged subjects’ brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets in an experiment that used gambling as a proxy for business decisions. The less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their betting decisions became.
You might have predicted that the less information we have, the more careful and rational we would be in decision making, but as uncertainty increased, subjects’ brains shifted control to the limbic system, where emotions such as anxiety and fear are generated, and erratic decisions were made.
However it is also important to look at the positive aspects of uncertainty and to determine some professional lessons. Uncertainty is famous for unlocking creativity. Frank J Barrett, professor of management and global public policy (and jazz pianist) notes that jazz is synonymous with improvisation and innovation – groups operating in dynamic environments characterised by unpredictable and rapid change – and that is how the magic happens. Whilst in classical music, mistakes are negative, in jazz they are embraced because errors encourage improvisation.
Famed bandleader Miles Davis actively discouraged rehearsing in case it led to musical clichés from over-practice. Similarly, he often asked his musicians to play in an odd key, so they did not rely on habits and patterns. We must try to lose the fear of improvisation in our working lives if we are to develop imaginative and powerful marketing strategies and creative campaigns.
The issue with the uncertainty that we are facing today is rooted in its certainty. In the past, researchers have found that too much certainty in our lives leads to laziness and a cerebral deterioration. When we can predict too easily we operate on a kind of auto-pilot and breaking entrenched habits to unlock new innovations can be hard. When we add uncertainty into our days we stimulate our hippocampus, where we store long-term memories, which means we will remember with greater emotional depth and clarity, and unlock new ways of thinking and approaching problems.
The challenge for us is how to add good uncertainty into our lives when we are working from home and can feel that we don’t have many options for experimentation. Can we connect online and talk to people who we don’t know in real life? Can we cook new food we’ve never done before? What about reading websites and authors who are new to us? We have to open up, expand and experiment in times of lockdown.
There are powerful examples all around us of brands and businesses who are re-thinking marketing models of marketing: Dai, the women’s workwear company; Smith & Brock, the greengrocers from Camberwell; and the Breaking Bread restaurant collective in Bristol are all examples worth exploring. Looking hard at your everyday will unlock numerous examples of practical marketing inspiration.
Mindset matters. We can draw lessons from the Stoics in the third century BC – highly uncertain times. Athens had lost much of its independence as a city-state and the death of Alexander the Great left a regional power vacuum. The old order had collapsed and a new one had yet to take its place. The Stoics believed that much of life lies beyond our control, but we do control what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Change what you can, accept what you cannot.
Accepting the uncertainty inherent in pandemic living is the key to creating a new and positive approach to the months ahead, but it will be those who keep curious and open eyes, alert to the inspiration in the everyday who will truly thrive.
Amelia Torode is co-founder of The Fawnbrake Collective.