People frequently face difficult waiting periods when they anticipate uncertain news regarding their or their loved ones' health, relationships, professional prospects, and academic outcomes. Such experiences are sufficiently significant and common as to inspire the familiar expression, "the waiting is the hardest part," yet very little research has examined the strategies people use to navigate the difficult and often painful periods when they are waiting to learn something. The primary goals of the proposed research are to better understand the experience of waiting, to identify the processes by which people manage uncertainty, and to reveal the strategies that are most effective, both for managing anxiety during a waiting period and for maximizing benefit and minimizing harm upon learning the uncertain news. Two longitudinal studies will test the Uncertainty Navigation Model, which outlines a set of common strategies for navigating uncertainty and makes predictions about the characteristics of the person and the situation that influence use of these strategies. Study 1 will examine the experiences of people taking the California bar exam during the several months while they await their exam results, and Study 2 will examine the experiences of students in an upper-division psychology course over the several days while they await their midterm exam grades. Participants in both studies will repeatedly report their anxiety, rumination, and strategy use over the course of the waiting period, and they will also report their reactions to the news once they receive it.
Identification of the strategies people naturally use to navigate uncertainty could help dispel harmful myths about how people should react in the face of uncertain outcomes. Research on coping finds that myths about the "right" ways to cope can be damaging to people who choose to cope in different ways, and it seems likely that myths about coping with uncertainty would have similar consequences. For example, patients who are encouraged to "think positively" as they await news about their health might have trouble managing their expectations toward pessimism in an effort to brace for bad news. Conversely, patients who are encouraged to "face the harsh reality" as they await health news might have difficulty managing their anxiety by reevaluating their priorities or embracing a hopeful outlook. The Uncertainty Navigation Model includes an array of potentially effective strategies for minimizing the anxiety of uncertainty, any of which might be more effective under some circumstances or for some people than others, and one contribution of the model and the proposed research is that they can reveal the diversity of reasonable responses to uncertainty. In addition, the proposed research has the potential to reveal key and novel insights into the best ways of navigating uncertainty. Finally, the proposed research ensures broad participation of underrepresented groups. Typically at least three-quarters of the research team are racial or ethnic minorities, and between 60% and 75% are women. In addition, women represent approximately 48% and minorities approximately 35% of the study population.