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Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others infuses social life. Past research suggests uncertainty has a negative effect on prosocial behaviour1-12 by enabling people to adopt self-serving narratives about their actions1,13. We show that uncertainty does not always promote selfishness. We introduce a distinction between two types of uncertainty that have opposite effects on prosocial behaviour. Previous work focused on outcome uncertainty (uncertainty about whether or not a decision will lead to a particular outcome). However, as soon as people's decisions might have negative consequences for others, there is also impact uncertainty (uncertainty about how others' well-being will be impacted by the negative outcome). Consistent with past research1-12, we found decreased prosocial behaviour under outcome uncertainty. In contrast, prosocial behaviour was increased under impact uncertainty in incentivized economic decisions and hypothetical decisions about infectious disease threats. Perceptions of social norms paralleled the behavioural effects. The effect of impact uncertainty on prosocial behaviour did not depend on the individuation of others or the mere mention of harm, and was stronger when impact uncertainty was made more salient. Our findings offer insights into communicating uncertainty, especially in contexts where prosocial behaviour is paramount, such as responding to infectious disease threats.

Original publication




Journal article


Nat Hum Behav

Publication Date





573 - 580