Question #1: You’re at an auction. Item #12 is a set of six glass goblets. Item #13 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 go for a higher price?
Needless to say, you would be willing to pay more when they know you’re getting six goblets than you would if you might end up with only four.
Question #2: You’re working at a job for which you will be paid $20. The person next to you is doing the identical job, but doesn’t know whether he will be paid $10 or $20. Who is going to work harder?
Needless to say, you will, since you know that you’ll be paid at least as much and maybe twice as much as the other guy.
But guess what? Research shows just the opposite.
Is it all about rolling the dice?
According to NPR, a University of Chicago study discovered that people will work harder and will pay more when their anticipated reward is uncertain than when it’s a sure thing.
The simple explanation is that we’re pushed harder by the fantasy of winning big. This is the same thrill people get from gambling, and what motivates us to buy lottery tickets with astronomical odds of winning. We take so much pleasure from what might be that we gladly pay for the possibility of happiness, even when the probabilities 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 uncertainty and to bring the unknown into the light of understanding.
…or is it all about mastering the unknown?
Consider how science has mastered the understanding of our universe. Or has it? We’re taught that all matter is made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which 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 they have lots of theories.
Then there is the mystery of a universe that is not only expanding but accelerating in its expansion, which should be impossible 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. An article last year in New Scientist questioned why so many people eagerly embrace conspiracy theories. Researchers theorize that, whether it’s conservatives believing that Barack Obama fabricated his birth certificate or liberals convinced that the government was behind 9/11, the attraction of conspiracy theories grows out of a subconscious desire to restore sense to a world that is 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 threat 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 secret cabals 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.
Even order imposed by evil geniuses 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.
Just as people with control issues fear finding themselves at the mercy of others, similarly do all of us long to live in a world that is predictable, a world that conforms to our understanding and expectations. 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?
But what if we embrace the mystery? What if we resist the impulse to assert mastery over our world and concede that some things are just beyond us?
Why should we take up company among those people who read the end of the book first, who deprive themselves of the adventure of discovery and the thrill of the unknown? Why can’t we revel in the mysteries of life instead of trying to take all the mystery out of life?
Would it be really 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 wrote that the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. 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.