The Times oped on uncertainty and polarisation

Uncertainty is unsettling. Hobbits often speak for many of us. Their idea of a second breakfast, followed by elevenses is genius. But their wisdom extends further. On the eve of the Battle for Middle Earth, Pippin turns sideways to Gandalf and says “I don’t want to be in a battle, but waiting on the edge of one is even worse.” A third lockdown is crushing. The prospect of one is wildly unappealing, but marking time to find out if it would be called was even harder. 


Human beings mostly hate uncertainty and avoid it. Research shows we’d rather receive an electric shock for sure than sit uncertain waiting to see if it will happen. Anyone who's ever wondered if they were going to get their heart broken will know that the uncertainty leading up to getting dumped is worse than the event itself. It is a sensation we are motivated to reduce. And the weeks of dithering about COVID have only heightened a search for certainty elsewhere. 


The desire to reduce uncertainty plays into our existing divides as we search for surety and familiarity. Being told you have got something right is reassuring. So we seek out people like us - our ingroup - to validate our worldview and reduce uncertainty. The regular ebb and flow of polarisation has intensified in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and three general elections. As political identities have become wrapped in other issues, Labour and Conservative supporters rank those from their tribe as more intelligent, open-minded and honest. The pattern is repeated for Leavers and Remainers. Dithering to make a decision about lockdown may have made them worse. This can even extend into the parts of the internet which can undermine efforts to fight the vaccine. The anti-vax movement can work itself into more of a frenzy. 


On the floor of the House of Commons this week Boris Johnson confessed to waiting until the last possible moment to take a decision to close schools - such was his determination to keep them open and continue educating children. It is admirable to want to collect as much data as possible before making a decision. But it reduced options to wait until “every other avenue had been closed off” before making a choice - indecision and uncertainty costs too. 


Leaders can play a particularly influential role in how some people feel. A US based study  revealed where people were made to feel more uncertain (vs. certain) by a leader, in this case George W Bush, they clung on to their party identity more strongly. Even more concerning, while it caused Republicans to identify more strongly as Americans it had the opposite effect on Democrats.  


Leaders are often not typical people. They can thrive on risk and uncertainty. Tolerate leaving decisions to the last moment. But most people are not like that.  When he was elected leader of the Conservative Party Boris Johnson promised to unite the country. By increasing uncertainty he may unwittingly have instead made our divides worse. 


Ali Goldsworthy and Alex Chesterfield are co authors of Poles Apart. 


This article was first published in The Times

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