Ambiguity Tolerance

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Ambiguity Tolerance is a psychological construct which describes the relationship that individuals have with ambiguous stimuli or events (situations where familiar cues are either lacking, overwhelming, or misleading). Individuals view these stimuli in a neutral and open way or as a threat.

Psychologist Stanley Budner defined ambiguity intolerance as ‘the tendency to perceive (i.e. interpret) ambiguous situations as sources of threat…’ and its counterpart, tolerance of ambiguity, as ‘the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.’

Ambiguity Tolerance was first introduced in 1949 through the work of psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik while researching ethnocentrism in children. She tested the notion that children who are ethnically prejudiced also tend to reject ambiguity more so than their peers. She studied children who ranked high and low on prejudice in a story recall test and then studied their responses to an ambiguous disc shaped figure. The children who scored high in prejudice were expected to take longer to give a response to the shape, less likely to make changes on their response, and less likely to change their perspectives.

Individuals that are intolerant of ambiguity report a need for categorization and certainty, as well as an inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person (black and white thinking). They often prefer the familiar over unfamiliar, rejecting the unusual or different, which is part of an overall resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli. Those disinclined to see ambiguity favorably seek to disambiguate unfamiliar situations quickly, which can lead to premature closure. This tendency to mistrust new, different, and progressive thinking has associated ambiguity intolerance with authoritarianism, dogmatism, and prejudice.

Research shows that being too far on either end of the spectrum of Ambiguity Tolerance-Intolerance can be detrimental to mental health. Ambiguity intolerance is thought to serve as a cognitive vulnerability that can lead, in conjunction with stressful life events and negative rumination, to depression. Ambiguity intolerant individuals tend to see the world as concrete and unchanging, and when an event occurs which disrupts this view these individuals struggle with the ambiguity of their future. Therefore, those who are intolerant to ambiguity begin to have negative cognitions about their respective situation, and soon view these cognitions as a certainty. This certainty can serve as a predictive measure of depression.

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