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How mankind has dealt with and can continue to deal with uncertainty

The uncertainty of the future is an inescapable aspect of human existence. This article addresses the issue of how many people respond to this fact. It then discusses how mankind has dealt with and can continue to deal with uncertainty.

People often dislike uncertainty. Many people do not like to accept the fact that the future is uncertain and cannot be predicted. It can make them insecure and creates a feeling of lack of control. But the uncertainty of the future is not only a potential threat. It also entails opportunities and allows us to be free and creative, solve problems and make progress. People are often insufficiently aware of the many responses that mankind has found to cope with uncertainty.

Coping with uncertainty


An important response to uncertainty of the future, is to assume that the future is like the past. Over time, this has led to the development of all kinds of increasingly sophisticated methods for forecasting the future. These were the basis for the development of areas like probability theory, risk management, control theory, cost-benefit analysis, project management, controlling, and more.

In periods when developments in the economy and society at large are favourable, people tend to believe that these methods have in fact eliminated uncertainty. That the unknowable has been made knowable and the non-measurable has been made measurable. People feel very confident and in control. At some point, not only logic but also history tells us, this turns out to have been a false illusion.

“Assuming that the future is like the past”, is an example of a heuristic or algorithm to deal with the future. There are many more, like “following the expectations of the majority” (herd behaviour)”, “following the view of experts”, “using rule of thumbs” and “imitation of others”. Imitation may also create “tacit knowledge” of how to do things, without being possible to make that knowledge explicit. “Trial and error” is a very important heuristic. It is the essence of how competition works in an economy and it may be one of the functions of arts in society. Evolutionary dynamics can be one of the emergent patterns as a result.


Over time a set of rules, norms , conventions, laws, beliefs about good and bad (ethics), have evolved and continue to evolve in many societies. They may be partly designed, but mostly have emerged in the historical process of interaction between individuals.

These rules, etc. contribute to the formation of an (abstract) order in society. Order does not mean that the future will become predictable at the level of individuals. However, it is a framework that contributes to the confidence of individuals in their capacity to act now and to adapt in the future to what may emerge and happen. It enables survival, also in the face of inevitable change and surprise. Constant adaptation by a great many individuals is required. That is why society is a complex, open-ended system. Having a capacity to adapt is perhaps the most effective response to uncertainty.


A great many institutions that cope with uncertainty have evolved and continue to do so. They play the same role as the rules, etc mentioned above, at a very fundamental level, by contributing to the creation of an order, meaning and understanding. There are too many institutions to provide even the beginning of a complete list. Examples are: language, money, the educational system, government, the church, the social media, entrepreneurship, leadership, science, arts, the army and the legal system.

Imagination and creativity

People have the capacity to imagine what may happen and they are creative. This can help to make them confident to take decisions and to adapt.


People have evolved emotions. These can act as guides to (in)action.

Alertness and monitoring

People can be alert to change and surprises which may require the need to adapt. They have developed tools for monitoring what has happened, is happening and may be happening. Data, information, statistics and early warnings are keywords. Alertness is also an attitude. Some people/ organisations are more alert than others.

Buffers, slack and redundancies

People and firms may hold buffers, and have redundancies and slack in their activities and organisations to create resilience. Resilience means that the occurrence of surprises does not immediately threat the continuity of the organisation. It creates time to adapt to whatever surprise has occurred. Different than sometimes thought, buffers, redundancies and slack are not always inefficiencies that should be eliminated. They have value, because they create time to adapt.


There are many interrelated ways in which individuals have learned to cope with inevitable uncertainty. Full control is impossible. Therefore adaptation has taken central stage in the development over time of societies, firms and households.

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Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World

University of Groningen

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