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The uncertainty intensification hypothesis

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The effects of uncertainty on the duration of emotions

Many people do not like the feeling of uncertainty. They like to understand the end of a movie. They like to know from whom they received a letter, regardless of whether the contents are loving or critical.

Nevertheless, in some instances, uncertainty can prolong feelings, including positive emotions. That is, uncertainty has been shown to amplify emotions and moods (e.g., Wilson, Centerbar, Kermer, & Gilbert, 2005). After a pleasant experience, most people feel contentment, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions. If these individuals also feel a sense of uncertainty, these emotions are especially likely to persist, called the uncertainty intensification hypothesis.

To illustrate, the joy that employees feel after they receive praise is more likely to persist if the source of this feedback is concealed. Likewise, the delight that individuals feel after they receive some gift is more likely to persist if the source of this donation is unclear.

Affective adaptation

Affective adaptation represents an attempt to explain this finding (see Wilson & Gilbert, 2008). In essence, certainty implies that individuals understand the experience. They appreciate the causes or consequences of this episode. Their perception of the world is adapted to integrate this event. For example, if they receive a kind letter from someone they know, they now perceive this person as supportive. The event, therefore, is now integrated with their updated perception of the world. The episode is regarded as typical, curbing the intensity of emotions.

In contrast, uncertainty implies that individuals do not understand this experience. They cannot identify, with clarity, the causes or consequences of this episode. They are not willing yet to adapt their perception of the world to accommodate this event, partly because they do not know which assumptions or beliefs to change. For example, if they receive a kind but anonymous letter, their perception of other people does not change. The event, therefore, deviates from their expectations or perceptions of the world. Because the event is not regarded as typical, intense emotions persist. In particular, they ruminate over this event more extensively, amplifying the emotions.

In short, compared to uncertainty, certainty increases the likelihood the event seems typical rather than significant. In addition, certainty tends to evoke thoughts that revolve around abstract facts instead of more tangible details.

Empirical evidence

Uncertain endings to stories

Wilson, Centerbar, Kermer, and Gilbert (2005) demonstrated this effect of uncertainty on emotions. Participants were exposed to an inspiring story about a person. Some participants were also told about the life of this person many years later, curbing any sense of uncertainty. Other participants did not receive information about the life of this person many years later. Later, all participants reported the extent to which they felt various emotions.

If uncertainty had been resolved, the positive emotions did not last as long. Within about 15 minutes, feelings of happiness had subsided. If uncertainty had not been resolved, because the ending was not as clear, these feelings persisted.

Romantic attraction

Affective adaptation explains the attraction that people sometimes feel towards someone when they are not certain these feelings are reciprocated (Whitchurch, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2011). That is, because of this uncertainty, the intensity or duration of this attraction tends to persist.

For example, in one study, college women were exposed to profiles of four male students on Facebook. They were also told the men had observed their profiles as well. Furthermore, some of the women were told the men rated them very favorably. That is, they were informed they were granted access only to the profiles of men who perceived them as very attractive. On other occasions, they were told these four man rated them moderately--that is, similar to average. Finally, to provoke uncertainty, some of the women were told these men could have rated them very favorably or moderately. Finally, 15 minutes later, the women evaluated the extent to which they perceived these men as attractive.

In general, if the women had experienced a sense of certainty--that is, if they knew how the men felt--their ratings tended to match the evaluations of these males. That is, they liked the males who evaluated them very favorably& they did not tend to like the males who evaluated them as average.

Interestingly, if the women had experienced a sense of uncertainty--that is, if they did not how the men felt---their evaluations were especially positive relative to both the other conditions. Interestingly, because of this uncertainty, they reflected upon these men more often, increasing attraction. That is, in this condition, they were more likely to admit that thoughts about these men were often evoked during the 15 minutes after they read the profiles.

Uncertain rewards

As Kurtz, Wilson, and Gilbert (2007) demonstrated, if individuals are informed they will receive a reward, they experience more positive feelings during the period they are not certain of which award they will be bestowed. When individuals are informed they will win a prize that is worth $5--perhaps a box of chocolates or a coffee mug--their emotions diminish once informed which of these options they will receive. Indeed, they tend to experience more persistent positive emotions if uncertain which prize they will receive than if told they will receive both prizes.

Uncertain phrases

One of the limitations of previous studies is that uncertainty is often confounded with content. To illustrate, participants might be exposed to a story in which an ending is either withheld or exhibited. Conceivably, this ending itself, and not the sense of certainty, could amplify emotions.

Bar-Anan, Wilson, and Gilbert (2009) developed a paradigm that overrides this problem. All participants watched the same movie. However, during the movie, some participants repeated phrases that highlight uncertainty, whereas other participants repeated phrases that highlight certainty. Positive films evoked positive emotions over an extended duration, and negative films evoked negative emotions, especially when phrases that relate to uncertainty were repeated.

Practical implications

One practical implication of these findings is that, in the workplace, employees should occasionally receive rewards or gifts from their managers without any explanation. That is, the reasons they received these rewards or gifts should not be specified explicitly. When employees feel angry or upset, however, managers need to reach some clear decision. That is, they should at least specify the next action that needs to be implemented.

Similarly, managers and supervisors often plan to reward employees, either to recognize exemplary contributions or to improve morale. Whenever possible, managers and supervisors should ask employees to specify which options from a list they prefer: perhaps concert tickets, book vouchers, financial assistance to complete a training program, opportunity to assume an additional role, and so forth. The employees should then be informed they will receive one of their two preferred items--but the precise option should not be specified until the reward is bestowed. This uncertainty has been shown to prolong excitement and pleasure.


Bar-Anan, Y., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2009). The feeling of uncertainty intensifies affective reactions. Emotion, 9, 123-127.

Kurtz, J. L., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2007). Quantity versus uncertainty: When winning one gift is better than winning two. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 979-985.

Lee, Y., & Qiu, C. (2009). When uncertainty brings pleasure: The role of prospect imageability and mental imagery. Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 624-633.

Whitchurch, E. R., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, T. D. (2011). "He loves me, he loves me not ...": uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological Science, 22, 172-175.

Wilson, T. D., Centerbar, D. B., Kermer, D. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). The pleasures of uncertainty: Prolonging positive moods in ways people do not anticipate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 5-21.

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). Explaining away: A model of affective adaptation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 370-386.

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Last Update: 7/17/2016