How To Deal With Your Automatic Self When Trying To Change

The ambiguity effect suggests that people prefer to choose an option with a known probability of a favorable outcome over an option where the probability is unknown

As I recently moved to Brazil I was confronted again and again, with what is called the Ambiguity Effect. It states that people tend to favor decisions where the odds are known. When you are unaware of this tendency it is likely that you stick to a vicious circle leading to nothing but the familiar. In my case, as everything was new, I got stuck plenty of times. In your case, if you finally have decided to change something in your life, you might still choose the non-disruptive way, not because it is the best decision, but because it feels safe. I believe it is time to enter the world of the unknown.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases could be described system failures in our human reasoning. Where a rational form of reasoning is usually preferred, cognitive biases make us believe we are rational when we are not. The ambiguity effect is one of them.

This one is particularly interesting because to get anywhere in life there are plenty of moments you will need to deal with unfamiliar situations. When your mind is screaming for familiarity and comfort, you should actually go where you feel the most resistance. Even when anything from a red head to vomiting proves your hardship.

Slightly kidding there, though it is essential for any change to happen to do what you didn’t do before. Nevertheless, the world the average western citizen lives in, there seems to be so much to lose that there is always a reason to choose the familiar path.

Educate Yourself

Regardless of what you think you might lose, I know the first step to beat this paradox is to get familiar with the unknown. Educate yourself on subjects that are relevant to what you want to do different, talk or look up people online that are in similar situations like you, and start questioning everything you assume normal. All of this information will enable you to shed a little more light in the darkness ahead.

Obvious as this advice may seem, the more contradictory the decision you want to make in your life, the more paralyzing the ambiguity effect can be.

You’d better remember at this moment then, that there are 7 billion people living on this planet. It’s therefore almost impossible that what you want to do hasn’t been done before. The trick is to filter all the information that is at your disposal and you might realize that this is a non-argument.

Until the same source of information gives you arguments that justify your paralysis, and you’re back at the beginning.

Get Familiar With the Process and Fail More

The clue therefore doesn’t lie in acquiring the relevant information, but in getting familiar with the process itself.

As soon as you start trying to realize a lifestyle according to your rules you are bound to fail. And to be honest, the sooner the better. The more you fail the more you will learn, and the sooner you will get it right.

Another thing to remember is that as soon as the ambiguity effect starts strangling your existence – that even though you don’t see it right now – when you make a decision other opportunities will arise. After however, not before you have made that decision.

Dealing With Ambiguity

I recently gave up on validating my physical therapy diploma in Brazil. I had a hard time finding the right phone numbers of the person responsible in this process. My previous experiences with Brazilian bureaucracy, the unclear requirements for the necessary documentation, and the fact that every single person I reached on the phone didn’t really know what I was talking about. I gave into the ambiguity.

When I tried again later on, I knew what was coming and wasn’t set back by the chaos of not knowing as much. I found the right phone number, reached the right person in two calls and a couple of hours later I was sitting at his desk. He was kind and forthcoming, and explained exactly how and what I had to do.

On a similar note people tend to conceive my dietary choice as restricting. Since I aim to eat a whole foods plant-based diet, I avoid all animal products and if possible processed food. Go into the average kitchen and there will be little left to eat. However, as soon as you look through my eyes you will notice the abundance of food and combinations available.

Not before you have deliberately chosen a direction, you will become aware of new opportunities.


I believe it is essential to realize that you never know all the parts that make up a decision, and that past experiences are usually far from sufficient to provide a solid foundation for future decisions. The only way to figure out what works, is to try, fail, learn, and try again.