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Emotion. 2011 Apr;11(2):413-24. doi: 10.1037/a0022583.

Uncertainty is associated with biased expectancies and heightened responses to aversion.

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  • 1Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA.


Uncertainty is an omnipresent force in peoples' lives that has been shown to amplify the negative impact of aversive events. This amplified aversiveness, together with the negative attitudes that individuals can have toward uncertainty, suggests that a cue indicating uncertainty about future events might be associated with biased expectancies of negative outcomes or biased contingency estimates, similar to biases that have been observed for traditional fear-relevant cues, such as snakes or spiders. Participants in this study saw three different cues: one that indicated with certainty that an aversive picture would follow, one that indicated with certainty that a neutral picture would follow, and one that indicated uncertainty about whether an aversive or neutral picture would follow. Online self-report data revealed negatively biased expectancies of aversion after uncertain cues. The degree of this online expectancy bias predicted participants' estimates, at the conclusion of the experiment, of the relationship between uncertain cues and aversive pictures. Aversive pictures after the uncertain cue (relative to those after the certain cue) were accompanied by increased skin conductance responses and self-reported negative mood. These findings that uncertainty is accompanied by biased expectancies of aversion and heightened responses to aversion warrant extensions of this research in anxiety disorders, given evidence for intolerance of uncertainty and anticipatory dysfunction in the pathology of such disorders.

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