New research sheds light on the negative consequences associated with feeling certain about the future of major societal events. The findings, which were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, indicate that future certainty is linked to poorer information seeking behavior as well as antisocial tendencies.
“Although past research in psychology examined future thinking and certainty independently, certainty about the future and its psychological impacts have not been systematically studied,” said study author Irmak Olcaysoy Okten, an incoming assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University. “We thought that certainty about the future would be a particularly interesting topic as it is a misplaced certainty by definition; people technically cannot know the future with certainty, and they typically recognize that the future is indeed unknowable.”
“Still, they may embrace future certainty to eliminate feelings of uncertainty, especially during periods of extreme societal uncertainty. However, such future certainty may also create tension within the beholder as it is built on a flimsy foundation rather than reality. Therefore, we predicted that future certainty could be accompanied by critical antisocial tendencies manifested in cognition and behavior, specifically, poor information-seeking tendencies and endorsing violence.”
In a series of three studies, Olcaysoy Okten and her research team found evidence that certainty about the future was associated with various maladaptive outcomes.
In the first study, 296 participants recruited via Prolific indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I know that everything is going to be fine soon” and “I know that nothing is going to get better soon.” The researchers found that participants who were more certain about the future of the pandemic were less likely to listen to medical experts and more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Those with greater future certainty also performed worse on a quiz of general COVID-19 knowledge.
The second study, which included 298 participants, examined whether future certainty regarding COVID-19 was associated with subsequent noncompliance with preventive health behaviors about one week later. The researchers found that participants who were more certain about the future tended to report greater in-person contact with others. In addition, certainty about a positive COVID-19 future was associated with reduced mask-wearing behavior.
“During the early times of the pandemic, those with high certainty about the future were less informed about the facts regarding the pandemic and adhered to preventive practices such as social distancing and mask-wearing to a lower degree,” Olcaysoy Okten told PsyPost. “Importantly, these results held for both certainty about a positive future and certainty about a negative future. Namely, not the content of certainty, but the sense of certainty itself was related to such antisocial tendencies.”
But the researchers were interested in the potential consequences of being certain about the future during other important societal events. For their third and final study, Olcaysoy Okten and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal survey of 975 participants regarding the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
The day before the election, the participants indicated who they planned to vote for, their certainty about the outcome of the election, and their endorsement of violence if their preferred candidate was to be defeated. One day after the election, they reported whether they believed the election had been “rigged” and again indicated their endorsement of violence. On January 21, 2021, one day after the inauguration of Joe Biden, they again reported whether they believed the election had been “rigged” and indicated how much they identified with the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
The researchers found that Donald Trump’s supporters were more likely than Biden’s supporters to exhibit certainty that their candidate would win the 2020 election. Certainty that one’s preferred candidate would win predicted greater endorsement of the claim that the election was rigged and greater endorsement of violence.
“During the 2020 presidential election, people who were certain their candidate would win (before the election) disregarded reality by claiming that the election was rigged both before the election results were official and after their candidate lost,” Olcaysoy Okten told PsyPost. “Moreover, after the official results suggested that Trump lost, those who were certain that Trump would win were more likely to endorse violence by identifying with those who stormed the Capitol on January 6.”
“Importantly, these results were unaffected by the level of support for one’s candidate. Indeed, future certainty emerged as a better predictor of endorsing violence when one’s candidate lost than the level of support for that candidate.”
“Together, these findings suggest that certainty about the future of societal events can relate to disregarding facts about these events and even endangering other people through antisocial behaviors,” Olcaysoy Okten explained.
The new results are in line with previous research that has linked certainty to heightened aggression. But Olcaysoy Okten explained that there is still much to learn about the consequences of being certain about unknown future outcomes.
“What are the benefits of future certainty to the beholder? Does future certainty reduce the negative affect stemming from uncertainty? Also, we need experimental and longitudinal studies to further examine the nature of the observed links,” Olcaysoy Okten said. “For instance, certainty about the future may lead to poor information-seeking, but poor information-seeking may also trigger higher certainty about the future. Future research will be necessary to understand the exact process underlying the relationship between future certainty, poor information-seeking, and antisocial behaviors.”
The study, “When knowledge is blinding: The dangers of being certain about the future during uncertain societal events“, was authored by Irmak Olcaysoy Okten, Anton Gollwitzer, and Gabriele Oettingen.