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May 23, 2020

Understanding Uncertainty

Justin Liwag

Ridley Scott on the set of Alien

One of the most iconic movies in cinema was Ridley Scott’s Alien. It was a groundbreaking horror sci-fi movie not because of what it showed but rather because of what it didn’t show. In the claustrophobic ship of the Nostromo was an omnipresent alien that was picking off its human prey one at a time. Audiences never knew when or where the Alien was going to attack next. Created on a small budget of $8 million, the movie was a resounding success.

In a time before CGI, all the effects in Alien were done with practical effects. This meant that long hours were spent on crafting the sets, monsters, and, most importantly, the feeling of the movie. Skerritt, one of the actors, recalled that the set was so dark, the actors couldn’t really see the walls. “It created a sense of floating out there in the part of the universe that doesn’t have a lot of light. That gets to you. The whole atmosphere that Ridley built around the set itself was quite effective for all of us.” It evoked a sense of real dread in the actors and, most importantly, the audience.

This was the genius of Ridley Scott. He crafted an experience of uncertainty. You never knew what was going to happen next, but it was never anything good. That anxious feeling would ebb and flow throughout the movie, never letting you go.

Scott did not scare you by attacking your senses, but by attacking your mind. Letting you try to piece together what you think might happen is scarier than anything he could have come up with. He leaned into this notion that the human mind will happily run roughshod through a person’s imagination if given permission. This feeling is so powerful that in the darkest and quietest parts of a movie is when we feel it the most. Our hands start sweating and we want something to happen, even if it’s terrible.

To realize and leverage this feeling, Ridley Scott had not mastered the art of horror but the art of uncertainty.

Time Travelers

The human being is the only animal known to imagine what the future could be. This single trait is the greatest achievement of the human brain. Having the ability to imagine objects and things that do not exist in our real and tangible world is what leads us to advance past every other animal on the planet. A human brain is a machine that anticipates the future and attempts to pull it into the present.

The most important reason for why we do this is because our brain insists on simulating the future so that we can better anticipate what we are about to do or encounter. The mind is trying to become more certain. To be more certain about something reduces the danger that it poses to us and helps us become less anxious and fearful.

The drive for certainty is the reason why horror movies are so fascinating and fun for us. The unknown future is something that is turned and used against us. When we watch a scary movie, its not a matter or not if you are going to be scared just when. It is an exercise in being vulnerable without actually being in danger. Our whole lives are spent trying to avoid the feelings of complete ambiguity, so being able to suspend that instinct for a couple of hours is fun.

In our daily lives, we choose certainty over uncertainty and clarity over mystery, even though in both cases, certainty and clarity have been shown to diminish our happiness. We hate it when we have no variety in our life, yet we seek out to make sure variety or spontaneity is kept to a minimum. Humans are complicated.

This eternal battle is why we work at the places we do, wear the clothes that we wear, and buy the things that we do. We are trying to reign in uncertainty all around us by any means necessary. This is why, for many, money doesn’t buy happiness but instead more certainty. The more wealth you accumulate leads to fewer things you have to worry about. This is paradoxically why, after a certain point, money does not bring more happiness. Once a certain amount of money is earned, it begins to develop a diminishing return since all your needs are taken care of. A person’s bar for material satisfaction is surprisingly low, and you only realize it once you surpass it.

To further understand this concept of uncertainty is to dive into how we try to measure it and how it is approached by people trying to alleviate it.

Measuring Uncertainty

After World War II, a young Dutch student named Geert Hofstede was making his way into the world for the first time. Having never left his home country until this point, he was excited to discover more of the world. After starting college, he set off to start an internship program in Indonesia. Hofstede immersed himself in the country’s culture by exploring all the food and meeting as many interesting people as possible. As Hofstede was finishing up his trip to Indonesia, he reflected on his time and experience. Even though he was a fish out of water in many cases, these experiences and stories Hofsede would carry with him were expected because it was a country that could have been on a different planet for all he knew. Indonesia and the Netherlands were two different worlds.

The seminal moment in his life came when Hofstede went to England. When visiting a friend, Hofstede anticipated that this would be a somewhat lackluster trip. He reasoned that since England was close to his home country, it would have somewhat similar cultures and conventions. He was completely blindsided. Hofstede experienced a tremendous culture shock and was taken back by how wrong he was in his estimations of this trip. Even though Hofstede was only a short flight away from the Netherlands, he was again on a different planet. These experiences pushed Hofstede into what would eventually be a lifelong career in cross-cultural research.

In his now-famous book, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Hofstede analyzed and broke down the series of factors that differentiated different cultures and countries. By defining five essential scales for this, Hofstede was notably recognized for his use of the Uncertainty Avoidance Index, which was the index by which nations were labeled as either adverse or tolerant to uncertainty and the effect it had on different facets of a countries personality and culture. In combining a variety of scales and studies from meticulous research, Hofstede was able to piece together a model of why countries were the way they were.

Extreme ambiguity creates an unbearable situation for most. If you cannot predict or rely on anything in the future, you cannot function in a way that progresses your situation. You are merely thinking of the present moment. To alleviate this anxiety, societies developed ways to compartmentalize and manage the uncertainty of life. Hofstede outlines that the three domains of uncertainty control lie within technology, law, and religion. Technology, from the most basic to the most advanced, helps us navigate the uncertainty caused by nature. Laws try to prevent the uncertain behavior of other people through the implementation of rules and regulations. Religion is a way of relating to the unseen or obscure forces that are assumed to control people’s lives and futures. Religion helps people navigate the uncertainties that they cannot perceptibly protect themselves from, such as death or illness.

Hofstede noted that despite all the information now available today, we are no closer to homogenizing societies in terms of culture. There is no sign of spontaneous convergence towards one particular truth or way. There are not even any signs that people want to.

The most striking example of this is the difference between the United States and Germany, particularly in how they deal with blood pressure. In the United States, if your blood pressure is measured as low, the doctor would casually mention it to you, make a note of it, and tell you to say “ahh” so that he/she could check your tonsils. In Germany, low blood pressure is an alarming discovery. It is an ailment responsible for weakness and fatigue. You would be diagnosed as having “constitutional hypotension.” You would then book your next appointment, pick up your new medication, and be something that you need to keep an eye on.

What makes these two countries different is that the United States is a country with a high tolerance for uncertainty, and Germany has a low tolerance for uncertainty. When you are averse to future uncertainty, you try to find ways to bridge the gap between the future and where you are right now. Small things turn into big deals and are seen as possible causes for something down the line, good or bad. Inversely, if you are more tolerant of future uncertainty, you feel less anxious or uncomfortable about your situation if it is ambiguous. To realize this explains why Germany and the United States have different approaches to the same issue.

This simple example is the foundation for how uncertainty plays its part on a macro level. While these are broad strokes, they provide a helpful baseline for how cultures differ from each other and, conversely, act the way they do.

What are you really buying

Where things get interesting is when we approach this concept of uncertainty on a more micro level. By applying this concept of uncertainty to companies and services we use in our daily life, we can see how people (consciously or unconsciously) understand uncertainty and utilize it to its maximum potential.

Companies solve problems. Great companies solve problems and remove uncertainty from people’s lives. By solving a problem, you give someone a reason to use your product. By showing the potential to remove uncertainty, you give someone no other option than to use your product.

If we consider Airbnb, what do they do? The most basic answer would be that they help you find a place to stay when you travel. That is what they functionally do, but the whole core of their business is selling you a guarantee of an experience.

Part of the fun of booking an Airbnb is just finding a place to stay at in the first place. When browsing locations, you see that no two places are the same. Each home, apartment, or condo is advertised with personality first, and the property owners are sometimes just as prominent as the places themselves. With each location, you are looking at how the experience of those who came before you was, how close it is to exciting things, and ultimately if it seems like a fun place to stay at.

The experience of booking a hotel is usually very different. When you book a hotel, you tritely compare prices and locations and book it when you are satisfied with both. You then see what you can do after that “boring” stuff is out of the way. With Airbnb, the place is part of the trip. The only difference between the two is that one recognized that people were not only booking a place to sleep but also trying to buy a guarantee of a good time.

In looking at Apple, we notice a slightly different but similar pattern. What defines an Apple product is an uncompromising focus on the experience of the user. It is why Apple has so few unique products and options attached to them. They focus on doing a few things really right. To buy an Apple product is almost to guarantee pleasure and ease of use. The familiarity and comfort of use is the receipt you get with your proof of purchase. To its users, Apple products just work. They reduce the uncertainty of what a person will experience and try and guarantee a novel and effortless experience in exchange for less variety and options.

One of Apple’s important realizations was that buying a product starts even before a person uses their product. It starts right when they open the box. It is the reason why unboxing an Apple product is a ritual and exercise in joy and excitement. They realized that the happiness of a person using their product would almost always decline with time. By extending the time of excitement and giddiness someone feels when first using opening and using a product, they were able to reduce the rate of that decline much better than any competitor on the market. By doing this, the person feels justified and excited by the decision to buy the product. Buyer’s remorse is simply something not many people have with Apple products.

The worry that the money they spent on the product is justified and validated. They weren’t sure if they made the right choice but once they opened the box they forgot everything about that worry. They alleviated someone’s uncertainty before buying the product and even after they received it. This is why they are worth billions of dollars. They realized that the box that the products come in might be more valuable than the actual thing it delivers to the customer.

Candy Bars and Rivers

An attempt was made to figure out how people evaluate themselves in the past and future in an experiment run by Joaquin Fuster. The study challenged volunteers to answer five geography questions. After taking their best guess, they were offered two rewards: They could learn the correct answers and find out if they got it right or wrong, or receive a candy bar and never learn the correct answers.

In the study, the volunteers were split into two groups. The first group was told to choose their reward before the quiz, and the second group was told to select their reward after. As one might expect, those who decided before the quiz almost always picked the candy bar, but interestingly the group who picked their reward after the quiz practically always picked the answers. This was surprising because the scientist running the test were expecting a more divisive split between those who would choose after the quiz.

As it turns out, people preferred to know the answers to a rather meaningless quiz rather than have a candy bar. The desire to know the answer to what was an intentionally boring quiz was highly important to those who took it and had to make a decision after the fact. It was not a matter of caring about the answers; they just had to know whether they were right or wrong. In concluding the experiment, Fuster realized how important knowing the truth was to a person and what price they were willing to pay for a little glimpse into certainty.

The cost of certainty was scientifically proven to be one candy bar.

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