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Why People Do What They Do?: A Desire for Certainty

This is the first in a series of posts exploring why people do what they do. In this post, we’re discussing certainty. When I was a young lawyer, I worked on a corporate team where Fortune 500 companies paid tens of thousands of dollars for certainty. When they signed a contract, they wanted to know in advance that the deal was locked down, that their rights were protects, that there was no wiggle room and there would be no surprises. In most cases that’s setting the bar unrealistically high because life happens and we’re not aware of anyone with a working crystal ball. But we all crave certainty.

In Judges Chapter 6, God’s angel met Gideon on a threshing floor. Gideon was hiding from the Midianites who were oppressing the people of Israel. The angel told Gideon he was a mighty warrior. Perplexed, Gideon replied that if the Lord was with Israel, then what’s happened? (You have to skip back to verse one for the reason). But the angel promises the Lord will use Gideon to deliver the people of Israel. What was Gideon’s response? Did he say “Let me grab my spear and I’ll get right on that?” No. Gideon asked for a sign. Gideon wanted certainty.

The first sign Gideon requested was that the angel would wait for him while he went to make a sacrifice. They angel waited. But then, beginning at verse 36, Gideon wanted another sign. The scripture reads: “Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—  look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.”  And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.” But even that wasn’t enough. Gideon asked that on the next night, God would make the fleece dry, but that the ground around it would be covered with dew. Verse 40 says “That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.”

Most of us will never experience Gideon’s fleece, but people still want certainty about a lot of things. They want certainty that their spouse or special needs child will be cared for after they’re gone. They want certainty that money, land or other property will be used in a particular way. They want certainty that investments will grow, not shrink. They want certainty that other’s can’t steal from them. So they prepare their retirement and estate plans to gain as much certainty as possible about how things will turn out. To prevent beneficiaries from fighting (and muddying the outcome), clients preparing their estate plans often include in terrorem clauses in their Wills and Trusts.

In business, people talk about risk avoidance and risk mitigation. Avoidance is trying to prevent a circumstance from happening, while mitigation might be taking steps to reduce the impact of uncertain outcomes (e.g., like buying insurance). Since nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, risk mitigation seems like the wiser choice. One writer says there are multiple steps to reduce adverse effects of risk, including the following:

  • Risk identification
  • Assess its likelihood and potential impact
  • Devise an actionable risk management plan
  • Execute actions to mitigate the risk and minimize its impact
  • Track risks, monitor progress, and update the risk management process and mitigation plan as required

In extreme cases, people can take risk avoidance beyond what is reasonable. A medical condition, often associated with anxiety disorders, is Intolerance of uncertainty. One author says behavior associated with intolerance of uncertainty, “such as worry and avoidance, can be framed as attempts to increase ones sense of certainty: worry is the attempt to look ahead and foresee potentially negative consequences, avoidance and ‘sticking to what is known and safe’ reduces exposure to the unknown.”

Regardless, this post isn’t about diagnosing people or even fixing people. It’s about understanding why people make certain choices. If they think they can increase certainty and remove (or limit) doubt, many people will take action to do so. But as life happens, remember Isaiah 55: 8-9 and for those of you who are Christian, remember that God remains in charge:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
   declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.


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