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The need for: Certainty


Explanations > Needs > Certainty

What is certainty? | The effects of uncertainty | So what?


A need we have that contributes to other needs is to be certain about what we know, do and say. Without certainty, we become anxious and uncomfortable.

What is certainty?

When we are certain about the world around us, we feel that we understand things, can predict what will happen, and are in control such that we can sustain our safety. We will thus seek to understand and control in order to achieve certainty. Predictions which come true provide proof that we can continue to be certain about what we know.

The feeling of certainty 

Certainty is felt as a comfortable feeling, can be sensed as smugness or even arrogance. Pride goes before a fall and over-certainty can make people so blind they do not see problems until they hit them in the face.

  The effects of uncertainty 

Uncertainty is uncomfortable and creates tensions that motivate us, although not always in the right direction.

Uncertainty causes anxiety

Certainty is often only noticed when it is below a certain(!) level. The feeling of uncertainty is uncomfortable and leads to anxiety. Unfortunately, as John F. Kennedy said, ‘There is nothing as certain and unchanging as uncertainty and change.’

Many people spend their lives in search of certainty. Many psychiatric illnesses, from anorexia to compulsive-obsessive disorder, stem from the deep need for control and certainty that can never be found.

Uncertainty is confusing

Removing certainty often leads to confusion, which is a fundamental technique that underpins many other approaches to persuasion. A confused person will clutch at straws to regain their certainty.

Brain effects

Uncertainty forces us to immediately pay attention, which uses more mental resources, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex. Even a small uncertainty triggers an error response in our orbital frontal cortex, forcing attention away from more normal goal-oriented actions.

So what?

So create uncertainty to motivate people. Confuse them or otherwise make them anxious. Show how the future is not are predictable as they thought. Then show them how they can be more certain. Lead them along the path to a predictable future.

The opposite of certainty is confusion, which can be created by unexpected actions and words, complexity, etc. Keep them on their toes and stay one step ahead by being difficult to predict.

Be careful with over-doing uncertainty. The end goal is to make them grasp at your straws, not to make them swim away from you.

See also



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