Tolerance of Ambiguity: Are you Afraid of Uncertainty?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Tolerance of Ambiguity: Are you Afraid of Uncertainty?

Under conditions of uncertainty, people are at their most vulnerable to social influence. (Dominic Abrams, The Psychologist, 1997)

I’ll give you a definite maybe. (Sam Goldwyn)

We live in an uncertain world: we know not ’what the morrow might bring’. We also have to live with things being unclear and ambiguous. Some people are more uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity than others.

The concept of Ambiguity Tolerance (TA), variously called Uncertainty Avoidance, Ambiguity Avoidance or Intolerance can be traced back nearly 70 years. It has been investigated by many different types of researchers from clinical and differential to neuro- and work psychologists. Each has tended to focus on how this variable relates to beliefs and behaviours in their area of expertise, from religious beliefs to reactions to novel products and situations.

The basic concept is that people may be rated on a dimension that refers to their discomfort with, and hence attempts to avoid, ambiguity or uncertainty in many aspects of their lives.


After the war, a group of American and German social scientists attempted to understand the ’Mind of the Nazis’. They interviewed many of the major perpetrators, including Goering, to try to get an insight into ’how they ticked’.

The result of their effort was a book called The Authoritarian Personality, which looked at the personality traits and processes associated with what might euphemistically be called ’interpersonal intolerance’. One trait that they identified was called intolerance of ambiguity.

It is now called uncertainty avoidance or, more colloquially, ’managing the grey’. This has been identified as an important interpersonal, corporate and cultural difference factor in business life. Frenkel-Brunswick (1948) defined TA as an ’emotional and perceptual personality variable’. She set out many behavioural features of TA including resistance to reversal of apparent fluctuating stimuli; the early selection and maintenance of one solution in a perceptually ambiguous situation; inability to allow for the possibility of good and bad traits in the same person; acceptance of attitude statements representing a rigid, black-and-white view of life; seeking for certainty; a rigid dichotomizing into fixed categories; premature closure, and remaining closed except to familiar characteristics of stimuli. Thus TA was conceived as a salient, multi-faceted predictive variable in a variety of behavioural settings.

Over 60 years ago researchers tried to develop questionnaire measures of TA. The following was one developed by O’Connor in 1952. The test is scored on how much you agree or disagree with each statement. Note: some are pro- and others anti-TA.

• There is more than one right way to do anything.

• It is always better to have a definite course of action than to be vacillating.

• The best leaders give specific enough instructions so that those under them have nothing to worry about.

• A smart person gets his life into routine so that he is not always being bothered by petty details.

• Nobody can have feelings of love and hate towards the same person.

• It is better to keep on with the present method of doing things than to take away that which might lead to chaos.

• A man can be well informed even if there are many subjects upon which he does not have a definite opinion.

• It is better to take a chance on being a failure than to let your life get into a rut.

Another scale was developed by Budner in 1962. It was the most popularly used scale in this area for many years. Similarly, the test is scored by the extent to which you agree or disagree with these statements. Here are just six examples:

• An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.

• What we are used to is always preferable to what is unfamiliar.

• A person who leads an even, regular life in which few surprises or unexpected happenings arise, really has a lot to be grateful for.

• The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideas the better.

• Often the most interesting and stimulating people are those who don’t mind being different and original.

• People who insist upon a yes or no answer just don’t know how complicated things really are.

Our need for clarity, certainty and decisiveness differs from individual to individual and country to country.

Uncertainty avoidance can be considered at the national, the organizational and the individual differences level. The British can, it seems, cope with uncertainty. They are like the Indians and the Swedes and the Danes. But research indicates that other countries are rather different in this respect. The Belgians and Japanese, the Greeks and the Portuguese have a stronger need to avoid uncertainty.

There are, it appears, all sorts of differences between low and high uncertainty avoidance cultures. Compared to which score highly on uncertainty avoidance, cultures with lower scores are more accepting of dissent, more tolerant of deviance, more positive to the young, less risk averse, and less happy about showing emotion.

Organizations and industries can also be categorized on this dimension. Indeed, it is likely that the intolerant or uncertainty avoiding seek out (and even seek to change) organizations that ’fit’ with their own preferences. Again, researchers who have contrasted low and high uncertainty avoiding organizations see clear differences.

The more tolerant tend to exhibit less stress, live more in the present than the future, show less emotional resistance to change and tend to have more highly achievement-motivated people. Tolerant companies tend to be smaller, with a smaller generation gap and a lower average age for higher-level jobs. The ethos is that managers should be selected on ability rather than seniority, that managers need not be an expert in the field they manage and that generalists are preferable over specialists.


Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30, 29—50.

Frenkel-Brunswick, E. (1948). Intolerance of ambiguity as an emotional and perceptual personality variable. Journal of Personality, 18, 108—23.

Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of Ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, 4, 717—28.

Hofstede, G. (1984).Cultures’ Consequences. Beverly Hills, California: Sage.