Uncertainty Is Powerful Stress Producer

Neurotic People Are More Stressed From Facing Uncertainty Than Facing Negative Feedback

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 20, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 21, 2008 -- Another day, another 400-point market sell-off or dismal jobs report or tax-payer-funded corporate bailout.

It goes without saying that we are living in uncertain times, and how you react to this uncertainty may say a lot about your mental health.

In a newly published study, uncertainty was found to be far more stressful for highly neurotic people than dealing with a clearly negative outcome.

The opposite was true for people with low scores for neuroticism. These people exhibited more stress when faced with negative feedback than uncertainty.

"Objectively speaking, uncertainty is better than clearly negative information, but this is not true for people who are highly neurotic," University of Toronto doctoral candidate and study researcher Jacob Hirsh tells WebMD. "These people do not deal with uncertainty very well."

Uncertainty and the Brain

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed what is going on in the brain when we experience uncertainty.

Hirsh and colleague Michael Inzlicht, PhD, conducted personality testing on 41 undergraduate students using a standardized test measuring five major personality traits, including neuroticism.

They then used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor brain activity.

While the EEG was being conducted, the students were asked to perform a fairly simple task on a computer.

The participants were then shown signs indicating positive feedback (a plus sign), negative feedback (a minus sign), or uncertain feedback (a question mark).

All the students exhibited higher neural responses when they got negative feedback than when the feedback was positive.

But neural activity was highest following uncertain feedback in the students with the highest scores for neuroticism.

For students in the middle of the neuroticism spectrum, negative feedback and uncertain feedback elicited similar neural activity.

"The idiom 'the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know' perfectly characterizes the attitudes of highly neurotic people," Hirsh says.

'Fight or Flight' Response

Developmental psychologist Daniel Mroczek, PhD, tells WebMD that he is not surprised by the findings.

"Another way of looking at neuroticism is that it is really a highly developed 'fight or flight' response," he says. "It makes sense that uncertainty would really freak these people out."

Whether the terrifying event was being stalked by a saber-tooth tiger 2 million years ago or finding that 401(k) statement in your mailbox today, the fight-or-flight response is largely the same, Mroczek says.

He adds that people who know they have a strong negative reaction to uncertainty should attempt to avoid it whenever possible.

In the current economic climate that might mean turning off the nightly news and reading the funny pages instead of the financial section of the newspaper.

"Someone with a strong fight-or-flight response may be able to modify their internal reactions if they really work at it, but it isn't easy," he says. "It is much easier to control external stimuli."

A professor of developmental studies at Purdue University, Mroczek's own research, published last year, found that neuroticism plays a big role in physical as well as mental health.

Men in his study who became more neurotic with age died younger than men who became less neurotic.

Show Sources


Hirsch, J.B. Psychological Science, 2008; vol 19: pp 962-967.

Jacob B. Hirsch, doctoral candidate, department of psychology, University of Toronto.

Daniel Mroczek, PhD, professor of developmental studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind..

Mroczek, D. Psychological Science, May 2007.

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