Let me tell you a story and show you what I mean.
You see, last night a mosquito bit me right in the middle of my forehead while I slept.
I jolted awake and tried slap the thing… but missed.
I could feel it, though—a little lump starting to form.
I pulled my covers over my head to keep out the bloodsucker, but after 15 minutes I got too hot and had to pull them down again.
Soon after, I heard it again. Buzzing near my ear.
Slap #2. A miss.
I didn’t want to turn on the lights to see the thing, since that would make it really hard for me to fall back asleep, so I pushed my comforter off the bed and hid under a thin sheet.
What a way to spend an evening.
As I huddled under my covers, dreading the mosquito that was holding my hostage, I thought a bit about the psychology of fear. Specifically, I thought about why such a small creature could fill a 175 pound human like me with dread.
It wasn’t a deadly spider. It wouldn’t cause me any lasting harm.
Yet here I was, cowering.
The same thing happened to me a couple years ago. Some mosquitoes got into my apartment, and terrorized me for a few nights.
Each time, I woke up covered in itchy bumps. They weren’t all that bad, but they made go on high alert when walking through the house or entering my room. I was constantly scanning the walls and ceilings for immobile mosquitoes.
I felt like a crazy person; my head swiveling this way and that… looking for nearly invisible monsters.
I didn’t see any, so maybe they had died. Or maybe they, for whatever reason, left my apartment.
But… I was unsure. And this uncertainty gnawed at me.
I never really knew whether my enemy had been vanquished. I didn’t know whether they were hiding behind my curtains or huddled together in my closet—waiting for me to expose myself to their sharp little pokers.
This must have been how the British felt during the Revolutionary War, or how those in Britain, Germany, and France feel today, in the midst of Islamic terrorism.
The tactics of the revolutionary army, led by George Washington, and those of the terrorists operating today are all designed to do one thing—to put their enemies in a state of perpetual uncertainty. A state of hypervigilance.
If terror attacks always affected the same location on a regular schedule, they would lose most of their terror.
They are frightening because of their unpredictability.
They make it so that we can’t mindlessly walk through the world according to our normal routines.
After all, what if a catastrophic attack occurs on my usual route? You never know…
In other words: They add instability to our mental model of our world.
Yesterday, taking our normal subway ride to work was reliable and therefore mindless. Today? It has an asterisk. In this new reality, it may be unsafe…
Instability in our mental model of the world = Uncertainty in our state of mind
And, you see, we humans are built to hate uncertainty.
Why? Because uncertainty is bad for business. And we humans are in the business of surviving… and having little ones (babies).
Not sure whether or not that pond will be good for fishing? Forget it. Go to the normal fishing hole that will provide food for you and the family.
Not sure whether there are lions in that field? Go around it.
Not sure whether the neighboring tribe is gearing up for war? Do some recon. Check them out. Get rid of that uncertainty.
Not sure whether a drought is coming and there will be famine? Don’t have a kid. It’s too risky right now.
As I said, uncertainty is bad, bad, bad for business.
“But Jason! Don’t we love unexpected surprises? Isn’t life all about the unexpected, magical moments?”
Yes AND no.
Yes, our attention is attracted by unexpected, novel things, but that’s because new things provide us with a lot more information than familiar things.
Here’s what I mean: It doesn’t really make sense for our brains to pay attention to familiar stuff… since the familiar stuff doesn’t really add anything to our current mental model of the world.
It’s only when our model is violated, by encountering something new/surprising, that we have anything to learn (to add to our model).
So our attention is snapped to unfamiliar stuff, and we get a thrill from it sometimes…
But at the end of the day, we do everything we can do wring out every ounce of unpredictability from our lives.
We want stable, unchanging mental models of the world.
And we clever humans invent all sorts of tools to make our environments (and thus our mental models) more stable. In fact, you can look at each of the most revolutionary advances that we’ve made as victories in the war against unpredictability.
- The creation of agriculture
- Reduces uncertainty of foraging & hunting. A more predictable but “bland” way of getting food.
- The creation of writing
- Reduces uncertainty of an accurate message being passed on
- The creation of the telephone
- Used to reduce uncertainty in a variety of ways, but here’s one quick example: before making a trip to the store, you call ahead to see if they have what you want in stock. If not, you don’t go. If they do, you travel there with 0 uncertainty about the outcome of your visit.
- The creation of antibiotics
- Reduces uncertainty of outcome for infections
“But, Jason, aren’t many of the most successful recent inventions we’ve created filled with uncertainty? Facebook, for example, is always changing.”
Yes – that’s true. Facebook and apps provide us with unpredictability… but to a lesser degree, and on a much different, smaller level than the scenarios we’ve just covered. Facebook gives us uncertainty within constraints. And I would add that people don’t necessarily find Facebook all that enjoyable. It is often a stressful, unpleasant experience. But it’s filled with plenty of novel material about our social circle, so our brains pay attention—they need to update their models of the social world we exist within.
There’s no faster way to hog attention than by creating something with ever-changing information about things that are important for our survival and baby-making…
But just as I hated the mosquito held my focus as I huddled beneath the covers, technologies that fill us with uncertainty will earn both our attention and our ire. For them, it’s a truly Faustian bargain.