Uncertainty Experts article - how to use uncertainty to make better business decisions

This article is written by Sam Conniff from the Uncertainty Experts. It represents the views and opinions of Sam Conniff and does not necessarily represent the views or opinion of Aviva.

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We’re living in the most uncertain times the world has ever known. And, in response it’s natural to want to play it safe.

In fact, our brains default to ‘safety mode’. Their job is to keep and safe from harm. But, for the world that we’re living in now, safety begins to mean something different. “Safe” can stop us from making bold decisions, and it can keep our clients timid and risk-averse.

But, the more you know about how your brain is wired, the more you can make bold decisions that will support you to better support your clients, improve your relationships and enable you to deliver on your ambitious growth plans.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  1. What a safety behaviour is, why it’s unhelpful, and how to avoid it
  2. Why fear of regret can be a powerful decision-making tool
  3. Why uncertainty creates ideal neural conditions for learning

Safety behaviours

Uncertainty makes people afraid. So, it’s useful to know that there’s very real science behind why we play it safe.

Playing it safe

Doom scrolling, binge-watching boxsets, emotionally eating the cupboards bare (please stop when you feel seen). Whether it’s online shopping, gambling or worse, every single one of us engages in safety behaviours to distract us from the discomfort of the unknown.

Safety behaviours are a very simple and evolutionary nervous system conditioning. In the psychology and scientific research of uncertainty, we’re learning that our need for safety guides everything we do: our behaviours, the choices we make and the societies we build.

My most persistent safety behaviour is a glass of wine. If I’ve had a bad day today and I’ve got a big day tomorrow, a large glass or two of Malbec seems like a great idea — even though I know it’s going to make work, life and parenting more difficult tomorrow.

Seeming-safe societies

Just looking at today’s TV schedules shows how much we’re harking back to bygone eras. To a false sense of safety and reassurance. That’s because our brains prefer to reach back to the safety of the past.

Personally and financially, many of us are grasping for a false sense of safety, even when our short term decisions might cost us in the long term. And it’s in this difference between short and long term outcomes we’re offered a clue on how we can reframe our fear of uncertainty.

So the question is, what can we do about it, how can we stop undermining our long term decisions, with our short term fears? Well, the answer lies in one of the stories of the Uncertainty Experts I shared in the last Aviva Wealth Advisers Forums.

The looming poison of regret

In our first Uncertainty Experts webinar, I introduced you to Karl Lokko. Karl spoke powerfully when he described his journey to overcoming his short term safety behaviours. Karl achieved huge changes by weighing-up the long term regrets of his safety behaviours against the cost of his life.

From brain to brain + body

When Karl imagined a giant syringe, packed full of poison that was ready to infect him, he was using a technique called cognitive restructuring. It’s when we contrast a short term fear against a long term regret to evaluate the cost. Even the really, intensely and personally painful decisions can offer us the perfect conditions for growth and change.

When we inhabit our emotions, we are allowing our brains to create scenarios — make-believe future realities that, to our brains, are as real as our hands, our feet and the bottle of water on your desk right now. And, like Karl, we’re going beyond our brains and making a body based decision.

Cognitive restructuring

To start using cognitive restructuring today, try this exercise:

  • Take a big, risky decision you’re grappling with. Write it out or say it out loud.
  • What’s the worst possible outcome? Be really honest and clear – exactly and really, what’s the worst thing?
  • Now, if you knew without a doubt that your main short term fear wouldn't come true, what one long-term decision would you make?
  • Now set a goal: how can you get yourself, or your client, as close as possible to that hopeful place?

Hopefully that feels a bit better! These simple actions help our brains to sort fact from fiction so we’re making smart decisions. Because our brains lack the ability to sort fact from fiction, we can make the most of the uncertainty that opens up the space for learning.

Reframing uncertainty

Now, most of you, I imagine, don’t have any gang experience. But Karl is now a leading light in society. Today, he is using the same cognitive techniques to run his Venture Capital firm, mentor young people and advise FTSE 100 boards.

Every single Uncertainty Expert[i] (UE) we’ve met was able to take a life-altering decision and, even in the face of incarceration, exile or death, they’ve seized opportunity. They’ve taken a moment of calamity and turned it around to change the lives of themselves, people around them and people they’ve never met. This isn’t because they’re superhuman.

UE’s research partners, Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty[ii] at University College London (UCL), are learning that, although our brains trigger us to run to safety, we also have the ability to teach our brains new lessons. Think about the facts behind muscle aches after a good workout: it’s a symptom of growing strength. Well, uncertainty can allow our brains to create something new.

The power of uncertainty

There’s real power and potential in uncertainty. That’s because our brains grow new connections so we can make the most of the opportunities.

On-going plasticity

Our research partners at UCL show that uncertainty drives what’s known as neuroplasticity. That is, the brain's ability to lay down new neural pathways.

Up until recently, it was thought that our brains stopped laying down new pathways in our 20s. But more recent evidence is clear: well into our 50s[iii], our brains are still ripe and ready for laying down new pathways and keep growing.

And, the conditions of uncertainty create the best opportunities for learning; when we reflect on deals gone bad, or decisions that went wrong, we allow the potential for new growth, insights and learning. Research from Yale[iv] shows that uncertainty pushes the brain into an optimum state of learning. We can look at examples throughout history where uncertainty has brought out remarkable examples of resilience and resourcefulness.

The land of opportunity

Right now, loads of us are feeling stuck by short term fears. That makes it difficult to choose new paths or products. So, when we’re talking with people who rely on our advice, by understanding that our clients are likely to be coming to us in a state of uncertainty, we can talk through the longer-term risks of today’s decisions and ask: in ten year’s time, is this the decision I’ll be really proud of?

Or, maybe you’re grappling with something big. Take a breather. Look at your own life and your career, and think about the most rewarding and memorable moments. Was the path to success predictable? Was it a fait accompli? If you’re like the Uncertainty Experts whose insights informed the work we presented at the CIPD[v], I’m guessing not.

I’m happy to bet that those big brilliant moments carried uncertainty and risk. By balancing long-term gain with short-term pain, you were navigating yourself through fear and towards success.

The power of uncertainty

Leaning into uncertainty is one way of being able to see possibility. According to the most recent research, the only thing more effective at drawing neuroplasticity in the human mind is psychedelics[vi], but I’m guessing that wouldn’t be within the financial advisers code of conduct.

As we sail into an evermore uncertain year, let’s look to tools that can be relied upon, proven by lived experience of individuals who are battle worn, backed up by science and research, and the evidence of the thousands of people who have been through UE so far. In a long term world, riddled with short term thinking, I believe these are the kinds of tools that we all need ourselves and can use to help others.

[i] https://www.uncertaintyexperts.com

[ii] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/pals/research/clinical-educational-and-health-psychology/research-groups/centre-study-decision-making

[iii] https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/change-is-a-choice-nurturing-neuroplasticity-in-your-life-0930154

[iv] https://news.yale.edu/2018/07/19/arent-sure-brain-primed-learning

[v] https://www.cipd.org/uk/knowledge/bitesize-research/transforming-uncertainty/

[vi] https://theconversation.com/psychedelic-experiences-disrupt-routine-thinking-and-so-has-the-coronavirus-pandemic-135892