The Power of Uncertainty || by Catherine Dockery, MA, Conscious Aging Facilitator

“We are frequently in error but rarely in doubt.” – Ellen Langer, PhD

Certainty and Its Limits

First, let’s talk about certainty. We love certainty. It feels good. Certainty is the feeling of confidence when we’ve figured things out. “I’ve got it!” We smile. It feels like life is good and everything fits into place. However, certainty doesn’t mean we’re right, it just means we feel that we are right.

The feeling of certainty is our reward when we seek and successfully achieve. It’s the main motivator that drives us to take action in the first place. The feeling of certainty and confidence often follows when our seeking efforts find successful completion. We’ve arrived. We’re done. It signals that it’s time to rest. Ahhh…. time to take our reward.

The brain functions to delegate as much as possible to the subconscious. It takes a lot of energy to consciously hold ideas and calculate meaning and context and solve problems. Once we’ve done something once or twice, the brain says, “Got it.” and relegates the function to autopilot so the next time it’s a breeze! Thus, certainty is born.

A Harvard researcher, Ellen Langer, PhD, says certainty can lead to habitual behavior from thinking that we already know. That is how the brain works—it creates unconscious habits for routine activities that produce predictable results. However, the trade-off in the efficiency of habitual behavior is a state of mindlessness whereby the “certainty” puts the brain on autopilot.

Being on autopilot can be efficient for lots of activities like driving and washing dishes, but it can be deadening for most activities and relationships.

Photo by Catherine Dockery

Power of Uncertainty

Langer studied certainty by measuring the impact of perception on physical outcomes. In an experiment with hotel maids, it was found they did not believe their work was exercise. In the experiment, however, a test group was told that their maid work was exercise. By convincing them of the exercise involved in their work, and making no other changes, the test subjects were found after four weeks to have lost
weight and inches. Changing their ‘certainty’ made all the difference in physical outcomes!

Simply by changing one’s attention, a different part of the brain is accessed that requires conscious thought. We instantly become mindful with powerful outcomes.

Image by Catherine Dockery

What we tell ourselves matters. Things are constantly changing and look different from different perspectives. If we recognize this, we stay tuned in. We start to appreciate uncertainty, which leads us to be more mindful. When we look for changes, we open possibilities. Research shows we live longer, people find mindful persons more attractive and trust-worthy, and their products are superior.

In Langer’s famous Counterclockwise Study, they took older men in their eighties on a week-long retreat where all the furnishings and topics looked like twenty years prior. During the retreat, they were told to act as their younger selves. They turned back the clock literally. In another control group, older men were only reminiscing at their retreat. After the week, tests found improvements in hearing, strength, memory, vision, joint flexibility, arthritis, IQ, height, gait and posture. Simply from changing their ‘certainty’ about their age. They were fooled into feeling twenty years younger.

Langer says it’s not hard to stay mindful, it simply means staying in a state of noticing new things. That’s it! Noticing new things helps you stay in the present, makes you sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the process of engagement so it feels good and is energy-creating rather than energy-consuming. Here are some ways to say mindful:

  • Understand that everything is always new
  • Actively notice new things
  • Look for what you want and not what you don’t want
  • Ask different questions
  • Notice the positive

We have enormous control over our health and wellbeing. Changing mindsets is shown to result in physical changes that have lasting effects on us and everyone around us, and helps us to become more creative, healthier, happier, and less burned out.

Notes and sources:

  1. Dr. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., has been a social psychologist at Harvard University for over 40 years. Her best-selling books include Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning; On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity; and Counterclockwise. She has also edited the Wiley Mindfulness Handbook, an anthology on eastern/western mindfulness practices. Dr. Langer has researched and written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision making, and health.

About the author: Rev. Catherine Dockery, MA, is a People House minister and a conscious aging facilitator. She has an MA in Public Administration and BA in Communications both from the University of Colorado at Denver. Catherine started The Center for Conscious Aging in 2015 where she conducts workshops, personal coaching and support groups for older adults helping them to understand their developmental changes and transform their lives. She has 10 years of experience in individual and group facilitation and presents on aging topics throughout Colorado. To learn more about Catherine’s services please visit or email