Why not-knowing feels so hard

4/3/2023 ☼ not-knowingemotioncognition

This article is about the complicated emotional backdrop for why we don’t think clearly about situations of not-knowing. Why does this matter? Because untangling why not-knowing sometimes feels so hard is a first step to learning how to deal with not-knowing properly.

This is the pre-reading for the third session in the InterIntellect series Thinking About Not-Knowing, on Thursday, 16 March, 2023 (8-10pm CET). It’ll be about the emotional-cognitive obstacles to thinking clearly about not-knowing, and is open to everyone.

Some politicians found it nearly impossible to acknowledge the presence of not-knowing even when it was obviously unavoidable.Some politicians found it nearly impossible to acknowledge the presence of not-knowing even when it was obviously unavoidable.

Here’s the tl;dr:

  1. We evolved way back to respond physiologically to situations of not-knowing as if they are stressors. Even today, when we confront not-knowing, stress hormones flood our bodies. Our hearts race, our breathing speeds up, we focus on the immediate present so that we are ready to fight or flee. Triggering a stress response in response to not-knowing was almost always useful for survival thousands of years ago.
  2. Social and cultural norms teach us to associate this stress response with feeling bad” or uncomfortable for some of the most important situations of not-knowing we face. Unfortunately these seem to be situations where facing up to not-knowing is most important for dealing with it properly or even growing/profiting from it — like leadership, navigating a career, or learning. Society teaches us that the bodily feeling of being on high alert is to be given the label of bad.” This leads us to pretend to be certain (even when we aren’t) or even to pretend that the situations we face are certain (even when they’re not).
  3. The combination of evolved response and sociocultural conditioning is a powerful blocker that prevents us from thinking clearly and acting properly in some of the most important situations of not-knowing we face.

This is part of a broader project on not-knowing, and here is an introduction to not-knowing for context.

A note: I haven’t yet found the right word X to capture concisely how we relate to not-knowing. X isn’t fear” and it isn’t aversion,” though there are sometimes elements of both. X is the sometimes wilful and sometimes subconscious unwillingness to engage with or acknowledge not-knowing.

Why is it so hard to face up to not-knowing even it would be most productive to do so — when leading teams, governing complex systems, navigating through careers, or learning? The simple answer is that not-knowing in those situations feels hard. Not-knowing isn’t just cognitively difficult, it feels emotionally difficult and often for reasons that we can’t or won’t talk about.

Understanding why this emotional block exists is one of the foundational steps in overcoming what often seems like an inbuilt human aversion to acknowledging and thinking about not-knowing. Turns out, this is not simple at all.

Right now, I think part of the answer to why not-knowing feels so hard lies in how humans have evolved to respond physiologically to not-knowing and how we’re socioculturally trained to interpret our physiological response to different situations of not-knowing.

Bodies respond to not-knowing as stress

Human bodies treat situations of not-knowing as stressful today. This is a legacy from the early days of being human, probably even before. Back then in evolutionary time, situations of not-knowing almost always had the potential for threatening actual survival. Traveling, armed only with a flint spear, through an unfamiliar dark forest possibly full of unfriendly animals. Or eating some untested fruit out of desperation before figuring out how to farm. That sort of thing.

The human body evolved to go on high alert and be attentive to present events when confronting a situation of not-knowing — this stress response is necessary to ensure that the body quickly becomes ready to fight or flee.

This stress response is the effect of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which flood the body under stress: they increase blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, energy metabolism, and suppress non-essential systems like long-term cognition, digestion, and immune function. That stomach-churning, heart-pumping, mind-racing feeling is the embodied feeling of being under stress and flooded with stress hormones — and our bodies learn over time that this is how it feels to be in a situation of not-knowing. Let’s call this the not-knowing feeling.

This feeling is more noticeable when the not-knowing stakes are high than when they are low. The feeling is much stronger just before, say, an interview for a job you really want but aren’t sure you’re qualified for. And people have different levels of this stress response to not-knowing. And obviously the level of stress response depends on how salient it is (i.e., how much you think the situation affects you and how much you care that it affects you).

The not-knowing feeling is how human bodies have evolved to respond when faced with not-knowing. In the evolutionary past the not-knowing feeling was vital to individuals and to the species. A big part of how we survived as individuals was by developing bodies that experienced the not-knowing feeling. A big part of how we survived as a species was by selecting for humans with finer-tuned versions of this feeling. But things become more interesting in modern times, because human behavior is now both about body and about mind.

Sociocultural norms give different meanings to different situations of not-knowing

It is obviously an oversimplification to say that only in modern times are humans about both body and mind. Humans have always been both body and mind, but cognition and intellect (mind) have become much more important relative to physiology (body) in determining how we act, the closer we get to the present day.

The particular kind of cognition that’s most relevant here is what we learn from living, growing up, and working with other humans: ways of thinking that are conditioned by being in society and immersed in culture.

Sociocultural cognition guides how we think about and interpret different situations of not-knowing. Some kinds of not-knowing are socioculturally labeled good” or fun,” and other kinds are labeled bad” or painful.”

We learn to associate the not-knowing feeling with how society/culture tells us (cognitively, to our minds not our bodies) we should interpret the situation of not-knowing that causes it—in other words, we learn socioculturally conditioned cognitive interpretations of different not-knowing situations.

Examples of not-knowing that are socioculturally good”: Not-knowing what happens next when reading a detective novel or watching a movie or watching a live football game. Not-knowing is a big part of why people do those things.

Examples of not-knowing that are socioculturally bad”: Not-knowing what happens next when leading a startup/company/government or navigating a career. Not-knowing what to do or how to do it when at school, or learning how to do basically anything.

The mind-body nexus

Our complicated relationship with not-knowing becomes easier to untangle when we see it as the result of a mind-body nexus, the interaction of embodied and cognitive reactions to situations of not-knowing.

This happens on two levels that are interconnected. On the first level, there is the embodied not-knowing feeling which is a physiological stress response. Second, sociocultural conditioning makes us gradually associate the not-knowing feeling with the intellectual belief that we’re having a bad (or good) time doing the particular thing that causes the not-knowing.

In essence, we gradually learn that the not-knowing feeling is bad when we’re in a socioculturally bad” situation of not-knowing, and vice-versa.

This diagram shows how we become conditioned to interpret the physical feeling of not-knowing produced by different situations as either good or bad.This diagram shows how we become conditioned to interpret the physical feeling of not-knowing produced by different situations as either good or bad.

We are conditioned to avoid the unavoidable

These associations become self-reinforcing as they strengthen. As a society we pursue more intensely the good” or fun” forms of not-knowing, so these become increasingly pronounced in how much not-knowing they contain. Game dynamics become more complexly unpredictable, mystery plotlines become more impenetrable.

On the flip side, we avoid ever more vigorously the bad” or painful” forms of not-knowing. Maybe in the past people were better leaders, or navigated careers better, or learned better if they always knew what was going on. But in modern life this is obviously problematic. No matter what the context, leadership is now almost always about dealing with unpredictably changing situations. Career paths are now almost never linear and stable. And learning has always been about figuring-things-out rather than already-knowing.

The problem is that not-knowing in these situations is unavoidable. The consequence is that interpreting not-knowing in these situations as bad” often leads people to pretend that they know what’s going on (when they don’t) or to pretend that the situation is knowable (when it isn’t). This maladaptive behavior is what we see routinely in our relationship to not-knowing. And it makes for bad leadership, unhappy careers, or poor learning.

Lloyd Christmas’s approach to dealing with unpleasant stuff.Lloyd Christmas’s approach to dealing with unpleasant stuff.

Reconditioning needed, stat

Evolutionary physiological responses take a very long time to change. Sociocultural norms change more quickly, but still take a long time. Some of the most important situations of not-knowing feel so hard because of how our evolved bodily responses interact with sociocultural norms. In modern times filled with high-stakes situations of not-knowing, this mind-body nexus has become outdated and prevents us from relating productively to not-knowing where we most need to.

If you’d like to talk through issues related to emotion, cognition, and not-knowing, join us for the third session in the InterIntellect series Thinking About Not-Knowing, on Thursday, 16 March 2023, 8-10pm CET.