You’re at an auction. The item on the block is a set of six crystal goblets. The following item is a mystery set of either four or six glass goblets… you’ll only find out once the bidding is over. Which item is likely to attract a higher price?
Obviously, you are willing to bid more when you know you’re getting six goblets than you would if you might end up with only four.
You’re working at a job for which you will be paid $100. The person next to you is doing the identical job but doesn’t know whether they will be paid $50 or $100. Who is going to work harder?
Obviously, you will work harder than your neighbor, since you know that you’ll be paid at least as much and maybe twice as much as they will.
But it’s not that obvious. In fact, research shows just the opposite.
Is it all about rolling the dice?
A University of Chicago study discovered that people work harder and pay more when their anticipated reward is uncertain than they do when the reward is a sure thing.
The simple explanation is this: we’re pushed harder by the fantasy of winning big than we are by winning itself. It’s what motivates us to buy lottery tickets despite the astronomical unlikelihood of winning, or to hit the casino floor even when we know the house always wins. We derive so much pleasure from what might be that we gladly pay for the possibility of success, even when the odds tilt heavily against us.
But there may be a more profound dynamic at work: our primal desire to impose order on our lives by resolving incertitude, by shining the light of conviction into the dark corners of doubt.
…or is it all about appearances?
Consider how much comfort we take that science has uncovered the secrets of our universe. But has it really? We’re taught that all matter is made up of molecules. Molecules are made up of atoms. Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons are composed of quarks and gluons.
But quarks account for less than 5% of a proton’s mass and gluons have no mass at all. So where does the rest of the mass come from? Scientists don’t know. But theories abound.
Then there is the mystery of a universe that is not only expanding but accelerating in its expansion – an impossibility according to the laws of physics.
The answer is dark energy – an unexplained force that makes up 70% of our universe. Some scientists admit that giving a name to something we don’t understand at all is mostly to help us fool ourselves into believing that we actually have a clue.
It’s no different in the social arena, where otherwise rational people eagerly embrace conspiracy theories to explain every troubling event. An article in New Scientist questions why.
Researchers theorize that, whether it’s conservatives believing that Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump or liberals believing that the Russians put Donald Trump in office, the attraction of conspiracy theories grows out of a subconscious desire to restore the appearance of reason to a world increasingly characterized by chaos.
Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to persistent news headlines that warn of a collapsing economy, a dying environment, the breakdown of family and society, the disruption of pandemic, the dangers of international terrorism, and the specter of nuclear war.
With our world spinning wildly out of control, it’s more comforting to imagine a secret cabal of hidden power directing events from dark corners of the globe than to fall back on the truly terrifying possibility that our fate resides in the hands of random chance.
Order imposed by an evil genius is better than no order at all.
If we apply the same reasoning to the University of Chicago study, we might suggest that the willingness to pay more or work harder is not driven by the thrill of winning but by the impulse to resolve the unknown. It’s worth a greater investment of money and effort to eliminate one more mystery from our lives.
Indeed, just as people with control issues fear finding themselves at the mercy of others, similarly do all of us yearn to live in a world that is predictable, a world that conforms to our understanding and expectations.
That’s why, when the world refuses to comply with our wishes by devolving into chaos, we quickly follow suit by losing control over ourselves, giving in to anger, anxiety, or depression. Conversely, even the most trivial revelation of the smallest truth signals a victory of order over uncertainty.
Who needs to know?
What if we embrace the mystery? Paradoxically, resisting the impulse to assert mastery over our world and concede that some things are simply beyond us may afford us the most security and peace of mind.
Why should we take up company among those impatient souls who read the end of the book first, who deprive themselves of the adventure of discovery and the thrill of the unknown? Isn’t it better for us to revel in the mystery of life instead of trying to take all the mystery out of life?
Would it be so bad if we listened to the voice urging us to ignore the man behind the curtain – not because he isn’t there but because, even if we expose him, there will always be another man behind another curtain?
Daniel J. Boorstin observed that the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. Emotionally and ethically, we’re better off knowing what we don’t know than imagining that we know it all. The mysteries of life are what drive us toward understanding, but only if we remember that life will always remain a mystery.