The Impact of Our Innate Need for Certainty on Effective Planning | by Kyle Byrd | August 2023

**The Importance of Certainty in Planning**
Planning is an inherent part of our lives, but do we have the cognitive mechanisms to plan effectively? This article explores the concept of certainty and how it impacts our planning abilities. Certainty is not a conscious choice or thought process; instead, it is a feeling that arises from involuntary brain mechanisms. We often cling to assumptions, hold on to our beliefs even in the face of contradictory information, and rely on others rather than building our own convictions. All of these factors affect our ability to plan effectively.

**The Desire for Certainty**
Certainty is a powerful emotion that our brains crave, while uncertainty is something we try to avoid. In fact, uncertainty generates a strong threat response in our limbic system, causing cognitive pain. Our brain perceives uncertainty as a form of danger, leading to stress and agitation. The desire for certainty drives us to build elaborate plans, even though we know that certainty is rarely attainable.

**The Biological Response to Uncertainty**
Our brain has a biological response to uncertainty. The locus coeruleus, responsible for our response to stress and panic, plays a significant role in how we manage unexpected uncertainties. While we spend time evaluating risks and estimations in our plans, we often neglect to consider unknown unknowns. The brain seeks the certainty of risk mitigation and estimation, which provides a dopamine hit, instead of dealing with unknown uncertainties.

**The Power of Imagination in Planning**
Despite our natural inclination for certainty, we possess powerful tools for imagining possible futures, setting goals, and achieving unimaginable things. Image theory suggests that mental images play a crucial role in our planning process. These mental images can be broken down into three primary categories: the value image, the trajectory image, and the strategic image. By mentally constructing and simulating future events, we are able to plan, set goals, and take action.

**Memory and Future-Oriented Planning**
There is a deep connection between memory and our ability to forecast and plan for the future. The human brain is a prediction engine, constantly modeling our future based on past events and our environment. Episodic future thinking refers to our ability to imagine future events without experiencing them. Surprisingly, there is significant overlap between episodic memory and future-oriented simulations. This overlap is known as the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis.

**Errors and Distortions in Planning**
Memory itself is not optimized for presenting an accurate depiction of the past; its purpose is to help us make sense of our environment and provide models for simulating the future. Errors observed in memory recall can also influence future-oriented thinking. Memory is not a simple replay; the information we retrieve from the past is often influenced by our knowledge, beliefs, and feelings. This phenomenon, known as constructive memory, can lead to vulnerabilities and errors in planning.

While we may never achieve absolute certainty in our planning, understanding the cognitive mechanisms behind it can help us plan more effectively. Certainty is an emotional state, and our brain craves it. However, by harnessing the power of imagination, utilizing mental images, and recognizing the relationship between memory and future-oriented planning, we can navigate uncertainty and make better decisions for the future.

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