Q: I’m in a weird place in my life: My work situation’s up in the air, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in my romantic life and my living situation. Friends are telling me to be patient and live in the moment, but I’m finding all of this not knowing extremely upsetting. Is there anything I can do to feel less anxious?—Distressed
A: When everything seems uncertain, it’s easy to go really dark: “Please forward my mail to the refrigerator box in the underpass where I’ll soon be living with my fiance, the cat.”
Decision researchers have consistently found that we humans have a strong “ambiguity aversion” or “uncertainty aversion.” We get seriously unsettled by the big foggy monster of the unknown: not knowing what’s going to happen or not having enough information or expertise to reasonably predict it.
As for what’s going on under the hood, brain-imaging research by neuroeconomist Ming Hsu and his colleagues found that the amygdala—an area of the brain tasked with spotting threats and mobilizing our response to them—was more activated in response to “ambiguity.”
This freakout by our brain’s Department of Homeland Security was a good fit in the ancestral times in which it evolved. These days, however, we’re living in a world vastly safer than the one our psychology is adapted for.
To tamp down the queasiness of uncertainty, verbalize your fears. Research by neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman suggests this depowers the amygdala by putting the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s reasoning center, to work. Tell the story of your worst fear in each of your uncertain situations: Your boss not only fires you but chases you out of the building with a broom. Then, carrying a box of your stuff, you come home to your roommate in bed with your boyfriend. Then you go out for a beer, only to return to a smoking pile of ash where your apartment used to be.
Obviously, you’d prefer that none of this happen. However, you aren’t unemployable or unloveable, you have friends with couches and there’s Airbnb.
Q: I’m in my late 40s. I’ve noticed many of my friends reconnecting with, and marrying, people they knew years ago—sometimes friends, sometimes exes. Is everybody just desperate, or is dating all about timing?—Wondering
A: In your early 20s, you know what’s vitally important in a partner: that he doesn’t have “weird nostrils” or wear a belt buckle with his own name on it.
Then you do some living and maybe get shredded by a relationship or two, and your preferences change. In short, context matters. Context is simply your personal circumstances, and it includes factors like your own mate value and whether you’re in a hurry to have a baby before your ovaries retire to a cabin.
It turns out that when looking for partners, we have a budget. It works like it does at the supermarket. You can buy the finest steak and lobster and then starve for the rest of the month, or you can shop more in the Top Ramen and lunchmeat arena and keep yourself consistently fed.
Evolutionary psychologist Norman Li applied this budgetary approach in researching partner preferences. Prior research had poor methodology, simply asking, “Hey, what do you want in a partner?” Well, if somebody asks you that—sky’s the limit!—what’s your answer? “Um, is Chris Hemsworth available? How ‘bout Liam?” But when you’re constrained, you have to make tradeoffs. You have to “buy” the important qualities first—“necessities” versus “luxuries,” as Li put it. When research participants were most constrained, intelligence and kindness were major priorities for both sexes.
This might explain why people in their 40s suddenly see something in people they tossed aside years ago or maybe just never thought of as partner material. Basically, at a certain point, many people give up on finding the exact right person and look for a right enough person.