Uncertainty and how to defeat it

How Snipers Defeat Uncertainty

If we can understand how snipers manage to do impossible things we can then begin to understand what we need to do, to think more like them. And thinking like a sniper, when it comes to mental calculations, is highly desirable. After all, they perform, amazing feats of mental agility, thinking faster than a supercomputer and remaining calm and collected under impossible conditions.

To helps us ‘see’ what goes on inside their head we need to understand a few things first, such as what the brain is actually designed to do and what happens when we are faced with uncertainty. All of this has the potential to get very technical drawing together highly specialized knowledge from the fields of psychology, neurobiology and neuroscience. Because none of us is as time-rich as we need to be I will, for the sake of expediency, cut to the chase, pick out the salient points and bring everything you need to know together in fewer than 800 words.

The brain is designed to look out at the world and formulate models that help it reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty due to unreliable or incomplete information affects behavior and increases the sense of fear. Fear has a distinct neurochemical effect. It is also a stressor that activates avoidance behavior, increases anxiety, and elevates cortisol -the stress hormone- levels in the body.

It should be evident by now that if we can reduce the levels of uncertainty the brain experiences as it looks out at the world we will be able to control fear and its debilitating effects on the body and mind, make better decisions and have the kind of charmed life we imagine our favorite movie heroes enjoy as they walk off towards the sunset.

What Is Uncertainty?

At first glance there are two types of uncertainty we have to contend with:

  • Subjective uncertainty – which we feel as we look at a particular set of tasks and begin to factor intangibles such as perceived difficulty, the resources they require, our level of confidence in completing them and the perceived risks involved.
  • Objective uncertainty – which arises out of the quality of information we have at our disposal. Objective uncertainty is about data analysis. It increases as the amount of information we have becomes insufficient, noise taints the signal we read, or the situation we deal with becomes fluid.

It stands to reason that we can control subjective uncertainty because it’s how we feel and we can train ourselves to deal with it but not objective, which is how the external world functions. But reason doesn’t stop there. It also introduces two distinctions that allow us to control even external uncertainty.

The distinctions separate uncertainty into psychological uncertainty and psychological approximation. The former represents a lack of knowledge about a particular situation (i.e. is the coffee in my cup 50 degrees Centigrade or 60?) and the latter a range of knowledge about a particular situation (i.e. the coffee in my cup is somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees Centigrade). Conceptually the two are very similar but they have a distinctly different effect when it comes to behavior. A high level of psychological uncertainty is likely to make us freeze. At 60 degrees Centigrade the coffee in my cup will certainly burn my tongue and I won’t be able to gulp it down so I am likely to do nothing.

A high level of psychological approximation born out of experience and honed by thousands of hours of coffee drinking however will tell me precisely the moment I can take a quick sip of my coffee without having to wait for the temperature to drop down to a much more tolerable 45 degrees centigrade and without having to use a thermometer.

How Snipers Think

It should be obvious by now that snipers possess a higher level of psychological approximation that your average person. In learning to think like a sniper there are very specific cognitive skills that have to be developed:

  • Data processing (sensory information and mission-critical data from external sources)
  • Information retrieval (memory)
  • Background knowledge (experience)

The successful application of these three, through a methodology that reduces the risk of error also determines the person’s skill level. This approach reduces uncertainty. Just that alone may also reduce emotional over-reactions which, a Harvard study suggests, accompany uncertainty.

Snipers (and elite performers) harden themselves to it by practising how to best apply these three skills all the time and that is exactly how anyone can become seemingly superhuman when under pressure.

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