Emotionally and psychologically, uncertainty is an unanticipated and surprising event or moment. It can be big (sudden illness or economic collapse) or small (tripping over an unseen snag). It can be harmful or even delightful (think of the received unexpected meaningful gift).
Uncertainty is fundamentally different from risk in the level of information we have about a current or future event. Risk is that which we have some prior experience. It does not need to be even our own experience. We can pay attention and heed the lessons learned by others, although we seem to prefer our lessons more than others (“Yeah, it happened to you, but it won’t happen to me!”). Risk is something we can anticipate, appreciate its implications it it happens and take steps to “manage” it. We have fundamental strategic options when we manage risk:
- Take steps to prevent or minimize its likelihood of occurrence such as doing audits, quality control checks, locating to more secure locations, etc.
- Take steps to minimize the harm resulting from the event such as having insurance, wearing protective clothing, building in redundancies, having an exit strategy (or rear door), etc.
Uncertainty we manage quite differently. Yes we can undertake some risk management steps (having a broad based insurance policy against loss or harm). But by definition we are fundamentally oblivious to such events until they happen. So though we don’t know what when, where, who or how are there some steps we can take to minimize uncertainty or its effects when it happens?
Being oblivious is a partially curable condition. If can know more about possible events that could materially impact us, we have moved the “shroud” of uncertainty back. This is where ignorance and arrogance come into play.
Being ignorant means amongst other things, not knowing enough about something (perhaps even many things). It is one thing to be aware of those areas in our lives where we are ignorant. If we think this knowledge gap could be important we have two basic strategies open o us: personally learn more, and/or tap into the knowledge and experiences of others. BUT, we can be “wilfully” ignorant by deciding that something is not worth knowing more about. Wilful is harsh, rather it might just be a choice based upon disinterest, other things being more important at the moment, not having any comprehension that it could matter (“How could I possible be aware that this is important?”). However, whatever the reason, ignorance is a self imposed state. Whenever, I hear: “Why should I concern myself about …?” I am hearing a form of intentional ignorance. Another form of intentional ignorance is encapsulated in the statements like: “Why should I believe you anyway?”
The point of intentional ignorance is it works for us most of the time. In fact we have to practice it some degree or other: we have limits on what we can know or pay attention to. we sidestep this fact in large part by being “social beings” and relying on the efforts of many others to protect us, forewarn us, bring to our attention, etc. Through social cooperation and collaboration mechanisms we can move the veil of uncertainty far back from what we could ever achieve individually.
This is the overwhelming power of diversity, it helps us overcome our personal ignorances. No one social subsystem has to be all that diverse, there can be great advantage to focus and specialization in knowledge and viewpoints. It is the larger aggregate that needs to meet the “I am diverse” test.
Arrogance is quite another matter though. When it is present, it is a self inflicted form of staying ignorant.
An arrogant person(s) or social system would make the following kinds of claims that clearly reveal their ignorance inducing consequences:
- “I know best about this, hence I am knowledgeable about another subject!”
- “We know best what is right for you!”
- “We are the authority on this subject, your position is contrary (perhaps even heresy), so you are wrong!”
- “We are superior to you or your offering, customers will never buy what you are offering!”
An underlying theme for many forms of arrogance is “I know the truth!” Truth is all about certainty. Uncertainty is about doubt, wonder, possibilities, change, etc. The underlying assumption in truth is the notion of complete knowledge (in the subject area of truth). So if I assert I know the truth then I am saying I have no areas of ignorance in the truth area’s domain. Yet we know this is a very risky (sic) position to take. History is full of truth wreckage. Being arrogant means we blind ourself vest to the possibility of being wrong, being surprised, being caught unprepared.
Arrogance increases exposure to uncertainty because it denies its existence in the area of its assertions.
The self indulgence in ignorance and arrogance is when someone chooses to remain ignorant (even of other peoples’ wisdom) and creating areas of ignorance by asserting complete knowledge.
Are there any areas where we can have “complete knowledge”? Yes with simple closed systems. Why simple? Once we move away from simplicity, we introduce complexity, usually due to multiplying instances of inter-relationships between system parts. With complex systems we get multiple paths, increased dependent variable relationships, and multiple feedback and feedforward paths. In complex and open systems we are cognitively restricted to discerning patterns (F. Hayek raised this point for me). But patterns incorporate the notion of variability and changeability over time. History does not exactly repeat itself. At best we can say that patterns in history repeat themselves. Yet the nuances in the specific differences can be significant in terms of the outcomes from two similar patterned historical situations.
In OD many of us preach the virtues of adaptability. In terms of this post what does this mean. Being adaptable means knowing as soon as possible that the situation is changing in ways not anticipated (an ignorant person would easily miss this “changing”, an arrogant person would deny that the change is significant may be even acknowledging). The second critical step in adaptability is recognition of what is a superior/appropriate shift (being ignorant makes it harder to do this well, arrogance would lead to delays in bothering to consider change). Third, is making the appropriate adjustments (competence). Again, being ignorant or arrogant makes this adapting behaviour more difficult.
Knowing ignorance and arrogance are self indulgent in the sense that we deem ourselves to be “above it all” in terms of uncertainty. May my enemies or competitors always be such.