The thrill of uncertainty

We tend to think that we only get a thrill when something good happens. We feel a flash of pleasure when we win the 50/50 draw, get a birthday card in the mail, or watch our favourite team win a game. But we might be underestimating the thrill of the anticipation of an event. Apparently, the interval between the onset of an event and its conclusion—the uncertain time in between—stimulates us as well.

On David J. Linden, Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, uses gambling and tweeting as examples. He writes that the pleasure circuit in our brains activates before the roulette ball falls into place on the wheel. The pleasure circuit activates while the ball is still spinning thereby stimulating gamblers, win or lose. And when our phones buzz, our pleasure circuits activate before we see who sent the message. Anticipation stimulates us, even if the message could turn out to be unpleasant. Our love of that thrill of anticipation is what makes gambling, tweeting and electronic messaging so addictive.

Sometimes the time in between brings just a small flutter in our stomachs, like the happy feeling you get when your mail has arrived but you still don’t know what’s there. Sometimes it is agonizing. Remember the Canada/U.S. gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics before Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal? No doubt many Canadians and Americans were highly charged going into the overtime period.

Wherever the uncertainty fall on the spectrum between flutter and agony, it seems we seek it out and thrive on it, and we need to be mindful of the thrills we choose.

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