Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity

Cogn Behav Ther. 2019 Mar;48(2):121-136. doi: 10.1080/16506073.2018.1476580. Epub 2018 Jun 8.


Anxiety levels have increased for several decades, despite objective indicators of historically unprecedented safety. A perceived inability to tolerate uncertainty or distress motivates individuals experiencing anxiety to engage in safety behaviors. Mobile phones provide unrestricted access to safety cues intended to reduce uncertainty and therein anxiety; however, recurrent engagement in reassurance seeking behaviors paradoxically increases anxiety. The current research was designed to assess whether self-reported intolerance of uncertainty (IU) levels may have been increasing and, if so, whether the increases correlate positively with mobile phone penetration and Internet usage. A cross-temporal meta-analysis was conducted using data from 52 North American studies exploring IU as well as social indicator data from several public sources. A statistically significant increase in IU levels occurred from 1999 to 2014, correlated with increases in mobile phone penetration and Internet usage. As hypothesized, IU levels appeared to be increasing over time and the increases correlate positively with mobile phone penetration and Internet usage. The results support the possibility that mobile phones increase reassurance seeking, acting as safety cues, and reducing spontaneous, everyday exposures to uncertainty, which may ultimately potentiate psychopathology by increasing IU and anxiety. Subsequent experimental research to assess for causality appears warranted. Limitations and directions for future research are presented.

Keywords: Intolerance of uncertainty; exposure; longitudinal; meta-analysis; mobile phones.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Self Report
  • Uncertainty*

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