Different Kinds of Uncertainty

Our brains have evolved to deal with uncertainty. Knowing the different kinds can help us better deal with uncertainty.

The different kinds of uncertainty include:

  • Expected uncertainty: Task-salient uncertainty about we can reliably generate new knowledge. We know about a gap in our knowledge, and can act to fill it.
  • Unexpected uncertainty: A change in environment compels us to question our model. The rules seem to change unexpectedly. We start to learn faster; and, this can actually help us break out of old patterns of thinking.
  • Volatility: The rate of change is itself changing; we are uncertain about uncertainty itself and cannot be confident in our ability to learn or master the context. The rules aren't just changing; we can't even ascertain what they might be.

King and Kay differentiate between "resolvable certainty"—situations in which an answer can be found by looking something up or represented by a known probability—and "radical uncertainty," in which there is no clear resolution state. The latter is irreducible to probablistic thinking; not only might it end in a result we did not expect, but it may end in results we could not have imagined. "Resolvable uncertainty" seems analogous to expected uncertainty as described by Miller et al. while "radical uncertainty" could encompass both unexpected uncertainty and volatility.



Kay, John, and Mervyn King. Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers. New York, NY: WW Norton, 2020.

Miller, Mark, Kathryn Nave, George Deane, and Andy Clark. “Use Uncertainty to Leverage the Power of Your Predictive Brain.” Aeon. Accessed October 21, 2020. https://aeon.co/essays/use-uncertainty-to-leverage-the-power-of-your-predictive-brain.