The Fear of the Unknown

Eva Andrijcic

I’d like to challenge you to a little gamble. Imagine that I show you a large jar that is filled with 90 marbles. You cannot see inside of the jar, but I tell you that the jar contains exactly 90 marbles, and of those exactly 30 are yellow, and the other sixty are a combination of black and red marbles, but the actual ratio of them is unknown. Each marble is as likely to be drawn out of the jar as any other.

Gamble A: You’ll get $100 if you draw a yellow marble

Gamble B: You’ll get $100 if you draw a black marble

If you picked A, you’re not alone! In fact, economist Daniel Ellsberg showed that in situations like this, individuals overwhelmingly tend to pick wagers for which they know the expected outcomes versus wagers for which the expected outcome is unknown. In the example above, you know that you have a 1 in 3 chance of drawing a yellow marble, but you don’t know what the proportion of black marbles is;  there could be anywhere from 1 – 59 black marbles in the jar. So, despite the fact that the likelihood of picking a black marble could be much higher than that of picking a yellow one, in general, when confronted with incomplete information, individuals select the value for which they know the outcome. This is called the Ellsberg paradox.

The marble example is relevant to any discussion of change.  For many of us, changing strategy is hard because the outcomes are ambiguous. Why change the strategy which has for so long resulted in predictable results, if we cannot guarantee with some level of certainty that the change will result in anything better? Why settle for the evil we don’t know, when we can choose the evil we do? Ellsberg and other behavioral economists have proven that people in general dislike and fear ambiguity in business and personal situations. We are wired to resist ambiguity, and recent research shows that even our close primate relatives dislike ambiguity [1].  In practice we often choose suboptimal strategies to avoid the fear of the unknown: from choosing a good old restaurant we always go to instead of trying a new one that might be better, to preferring bonds and deposits over stocks in our portfolios because of the volatility of stock prices.

So, what does this have to do with change? Very often when we ask people to join our change efforts, or when we seek support and buy-in, we might ignore the fact that we are asking people to suspend their fear of the unknown. We don’t always have all of the answers ready; the outcomes caused by our change might be ambiguous, as might be our communication with those impacted. Yet we ask people to trust us and our experience. Sometimes they might not be able to do so immediately, not because they don’t believe in us or our change initiatives, but because they are afraid of the unknown. That is completely natural, and we should anticipate that response!

So, what can we do? First of all, we can accept resistance to ambiguity as a natural gut reaction, and proactively seek areas where people we talk to might want more clarity. We can reduce ambiguity of communication by truthfully acknowledging the existence of ambiguity in the process, goals or outcomes of our change initiative. We can try to reduce those ambiguities as much as possible by drawing parallels to similar examples or experiences at our or other institutions. We can try to implement our change initiatives in increments to give individuals time to assess and adjust to the unknown. We can also point out to individuals the presence of the Ellsberg paradox – bring the unconscious to the forefront so that people think more deeply about the factors that are guiding their decision making.

As an example, recently a group of colleagues presented a plan for a new non-traditional major at our institution. The process of getting the major approved was not easy for them, but what ultimately helped their case was the fact that they openly acknowledged the existence of many uncertainties in the process and outcomes. Could they predict with certainty the number of students who would be interested in their major? No! Could they predict a specific starting salary for graduating majors? No! Could they be completely sure that companies would employ their majors? No! But they recognized in advance that other faculty members had concerns about those issues and they communicated openly about those concerns. They also conducted research to draw parallels with similar programs at other institutions so they could speak about possible ranges of values of enrolled students, salaries, and other variables that were of particular concern to the faculty body. Additionally, instead of immediately introducing the full-blown major, they conducted a yearlong pilot program in which they introduced their curriculum to a sample of incoming freshmen. They used that experience to make the necessary improvements to the program, but they also (knowingly or unknowingly) gave individuals time to adjust to the idea of the new major before the final vote.

In the end, change makers engage in change projects because they have convinced themselves that the status quo is unacceptable, and that any change – even with partially unknown outcomes – is better than the current situation. In order to get more support for our initiatives, we have to be cognizant of the biological fear of the unknown, and we have to help individuals recognize it in themselves. So next time your colleagues choose the yellow marble gamble, use that as an opportunity to discuss why they didn’t pick the option that potentially has a much higher likelihood of payoff.



  1. G. Rosati, B. Hare. Chimpanzees and bonobos distinguish between risk and ambiguityBiology Letters, 2010; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0927


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