What's more stressful for you: knowing for sure that something bad is about to happen or being highly uncertain about a possible negative outcome? Archy de Berker, Robb Rutledge, and their fellow researchers examined this question in a study in Nature Communications. The scholars conducted an experiment in which participants played a computer game. In the game, subjects looked under rocks, and in some cases, they discovered snakes. The subjects received an electric shock in the computer game if a snake appeared. The scholars embedded a great deal of uncertainty in the game, and it fluctuated significantly as participants played. They examined the stress that subjects experienced by measuring certain physiological responses (such as pupil dilation). Participants also reported their self-perceptions about stress as they played.
What did the scholars find? Subjects experienced the most stress when uncertainty was at its highest levels. Perhaps most interesting though is the finding related to certainty vs. uncertainty. The Guardian recently reported on these findings:
"So what’s the big deal? Everyone knows that uncertainty is stressful. But what’s not so obvious is that uncertainty is more stressful than predictable negative consequences. Is it really more stressful wondering whether you’ll make it to your meeting on time than knowing you’ll be late? Is it more stressful wondering if you’re about to get sacked than being relatively sure of it? De Berker’s results provide a resounding “yes”."
What's the implication for business leaders? You might be hesitant about communicating bad news because you know it will cause stress for others in your organization. However, this research indicates that the uncertainty leading up to a negative consequence could be much more stressful than knowing for sure that something bad will happen. Keeping people in the dark does not help them; it may cause more harm than good.