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    Aug 19, 2020    |   Psychometrics Canada

Fear of the Unknown

How can we thrive through Uncertain Times?

Written by Shawn Bakker, Lead Psychologist

Uncertainty causes us a lot of discomfort. In 2016 researchers at the University College of London conducted a study on uncertainty1. Participants played a computer game where they would turn over rocks that might have snakes under them. When there was a snake, they received a mildly painful shock on the hand. Over time participants would learn which of the rocks were most likely to harbor snakes, allowing them to better predict if they would receive a shock or not. What the researchers discovered was that knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing that you will definitely be shocked. They found that the more uncertain people were, the more they sweated, and the bigger their pupils got. In essence, uncertainty caused more stress than inevitable pain!

R.N. Carleton from the University of Regina has written about fear of the unknown being a, and possibly the, fundamental fear of people2. When dealing with fluid situations that are constantly changing, finding certainty can be extremely difficult. But this doesn’t stop many of us from trying to find it. Seeking out certainty is an inherently reinforcing activity for us as human.

Unfortunately this pursuit of certainty, when it can’t be found, can actually make things worse. Our unparalleled access to information compounds our uncertainty, leading to a greater sense of powerlessness and a lack of control. Reading more articles, tweets, and posts about the changing COVID situation, politics, or economy does not help you reduce the uncertainty you feel about these things.

I am not suggesting that you remain ignorant, but instead, limit your intake of news and take time to focus on those things that you can control. This is how you can better deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown.

This is also true in our work teams – in a time of uncertainty, what can you do that is useful, valuable and proactive? Focusing on these areas will give you and your team members a greater sense of control. This will alleviate anxiety, and also provide positive energy to the group. Many workplaces have already dealt with the immediate crises brought about by the Coronavirus. But it is worth considering how your team can move from defense to offense, I’ve blogged about building organizational resiliency, and David Denyer from the Cranfield School of Management has written a great article on how strategic response during times of uncertainty3. By focusing on prospects and opportunities, your teams can look for ways to make good things happen. This provides control, reduces uncertainty, and has people focusing on a positive future.

So to address the fear of the unknown here are a few tips:

  • Limit your intake of news.
  • Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.
  • Be strategic – seek out prospects and opportunities.
  • Recognize that you are not alone – what you are feeling is being felt by many others as well.


  1. Archy O. de Berker, Robb B. Rutledge, Christoph Mathys, Louise Marshall, Gemma F. Cross, Raymond J. Dolan, Sven Bestmann. Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 10996 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10996
  2. R.N. Carleton. Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2016, 41, 5-21
  3. D. Denyer. Responding to the coronavirus crisis: A strategic approach
Filed under: Team Building