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Ambiguity Intolerance Considerations when Designing Health and Risk Messages

Summary and Keywords

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 sub-discipline has tended to focus on how their variable relates to beliefs and behaviors in their area of expertise, from religious beliefs to reactions to novel products and situations.

The basic concept is that people may be understood on a dimension that refers to their discomfort with, and hence attempts to avoid, ambiguity or uncertainty in many aspects of their lives. There have been many attempts to devise robust and valid measures of this dimension, most of which are highly inter-correlated and require self-reporting. There remains a debate as to whether it is useful having just one or more dimensions/facets of the concept.

Using these tests, there have been many correlational studies that have sought to validate the measure by looking at how those high and low on this dimension react to different situations. There have also been some, but many fewer, experimental studies, which have tested very specific hypotheses about how TA is related to information processing and reactions to specific stimuli. There is now a welcomed interest by neuroscientists to explore the concept from their perspective and using their methodologies.

These studies have been piecemeal, though most have supported the tested hypotheses. There has been less theoretical development, however, of the concept attempting to explain how these beliefs arise, what sustains them, and how, why, and when they may change. However, the concept has continued to interest researchers from many backgrounds, which attests to its applicability, fecundity, and novelty.

Keywords: tolerance, ambiguity, uncertainty, psychometric, health and risk message design and processing


This chapter reviews the disparate and cross-disciplinary literature concerned with the discomfort with, and hence attempts to avoid, uncertainty or ambiguity. Within psychology, it has been examined by cognitive, differential, and experimental psychologists. The idea has also been explored by psychoanalysts and cross-cultural psychologists. Whilst the concept has generated a number of personality test and intelligence test type measures, it has not shown as much conceptual development or integration into any other area of research. To some, therefore, it is a sort of “back-water,” while to others it remains an important, central construct and measure with considerable application.

The concept of tolerance of ambiguity (TA) was developed by Frenkel-Brunswick (1948). It has attracted much research over the last 60 years (Merrotsky, 2013). An early paper that related TA to authoritarianism has since been cited nearly 10,000 times (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). There have not been many reviews of the concept, an exception being Liu (2015), who was particularly interested in the TA literature in the educational context. This contribution attempts to update reviews by Furnham (1994), Furnham and Ribchester (1995), and Furnham and Marks (2013) on the conceptions, correlates, and measurement of TA.

A quick review of the scattered literature indicates three things about the construct. First, that between five and 20 papers are published a year on the topic. A few are theoretical or methodological papers, but most are relatively small-scale empirical papers. Second, they are published in an astonishing range of journals with respect to discipline, country, and topic. Third, most studies use TA as an independent or correlational variable rather than a dependent variable. That is, few studies look at how it originates or operates; rather, most studies look at how it changes or influences other beliefs and behaviors.

Thus recent studies have looked at how TA is related to foreign language use (Atamanova & Bogomaz, 2014; Dewaele & Wei, 2013), creativity (Balgiu, 2014), responses to advertising (Banks & De Pelsmacker, 2014), information search (Money & Crotts, 2003), and ethnocentrism (Cargile & Bolkan, 2013).

Studies have been done particularly among those in the medical profession (Caulfield, Andolsek, Grbic, & Roskovensky, 2014; Cooke, Doust, & Steele, 2013; Lally & Cantillon, 2014). Some have related TA to very modern concepts like cyberchondria (Fergus, 2013), while others have asked if the TA of a manager is related to work success (Katsaros, Tsirikas, & Nicolaidis, 2014). Sometimes the TA concept has been applied in clinical (Laposa, Collimore, Hawley, & Rector, 2015), organizational (Ravindran & Iyer, 2014), or educational settings (Valutis, 2015; Xu & Tracey, 2014).

Tanaka et al. (2015) pointed out that whereas economists have been interested in ambiguity aversion (a preference for known risks relative to unknown risks), psychologists have been interested in TA. In a highly sophisticated psychometric and magnetic resonance imaging study they found the two concepts weakly related. However, what the study does illustrate is that different disciplines have come up with seemingly related concepts, which may or may not have similar underlying features and processes.

History of the Concept

Frenkel-Brunswick (1949) defined TA as an “emotional and perceptual personality variable” (This work was to influence many others like Eysenck (1954), who was very interested in social attitudes. Frenkel-Brunswick (1951) suggested TA was related to 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.

Frenkel-Brunswick (1949, 1951) argued that TA generalizes to the various aspects of emotional and cognitive functioning of the individual, characterizing cognitive style, belief and attitude systems, interpersonal and social functioning, and problem solving behavior.

Those who are intolerant of ambiguity are described as having a tendency to resort to black-and-white solutions and characterized by rapid and overconfident judgment, often at the neglect of reality (Frenkel-Brunswick, 1949). At the other end of the scale, ambiguous situations are perceived as desirable, challenging, and interesting, usually by individuals who score highly on an Openness to Experience scale (Caligiuri, Jacobs, & Farr, 2000) and show both sensation-seeking and risk-taking behavior (Lauriola, Levin, & Hart, 2007; McLain, 1993, 2009).

The TA concept is thus over 65 years old but seems unlikely to retire. The ideas behind the concept continue to attract researchers from many disciplines and many countries.

Early Studies

Attempts to develop self-report measures began over 50 years ago. Budner (1962) defined TA as “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable” (p. 30). His was one of the first measures, and the paper has been cited over 1,000 times. Later McLain (1993) defined TA as “a range, from rejection to attraction, of reactions to stimuli perceived as unfamiliar, complex, dynamically uncertain, or subject to multiple conflicting interpretations” (p. 184).

It is still unclear whether TA is a stable trait, and if so how it fits into Big Five factor space. Personality psychologists interested in parsimonious taxonomization are eager to take all traits and plot them in factor space though this appears not to have been done for TA. However there still remains doubt as to whether TA is more of a cognitive style or even a defense mechanism rather than a stable personality trait. Thus, social psychologists, often opposed to differential psychology, like Durrheim and Foster (1997) argue that TA is a context-specific construct, not a stable trait. Others have also advocated the use of contextualized measures (Herman, Stevens, Bird, Mendenhall, & Oddou, 2010).

Those with low TA have an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations, which are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial (Budner, 1962; Furnham & Ribchester, 1995; MacDonald, 1970; McLain, 1993).

Some studies have made their focus examining how TA influences the perception of situations and decision making (McLain, 2009, Yurtsever, 2001, 2008; Van Hook & Steele, 2002). Instead, it is thought that constructs that are defined by an absence of information (e.g., risk-taking behavior) are more relevant and are more useful validating TA measures.

According to Furnham and Marks (2013), the recent TA research literature has three different features: there has been work on similar concepts to TA; there has been an increase of experimental over correlational studies; and there has been more of an interest in the effects of TA in the work environment.

Conceptual and Definitional Issues

The concept of TA has also been described as Uncertainty Avoidance and Risk-Taking Propensity. Hofstede (1984) defined it as “the extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations, and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these” (p. 419).

There is also a clinical literature on Tolerance of Uncertainty (TU), which has been conceived of as a cognitive disposition that confers risk of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD; Birrell, Meares, Wilkinson, & Freeston, 2011). Various self-report measures have been developed, which are often validated against measures of anxiety, depression, and worry (Carleton, Norton, & Asmundson, 2007). TU is associated with worries and negative expectations of the future and linked to anxiety disorders (Ladouceur et al., 2000).

TU can be measured using the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (Freeston et al., 1994), which is made up of 27 items. Dugas et al. (1997) reported a test-retest reliability of 0.78 over a five week period. The scale is used as a clinical tool in the diagnosis of GAD (Freeston et al., 1994). There are various studies on its psychometric properties (Buhr & Dugas, 2006; Fergus & Wu, 2013).

Green and Roger (2001) suggested a clear relationship between TA and TU: the former is used primarily in cognitive studies on decision-making, memory, and perception, “all of which are oriented towards cognitive processes rather than stress and emotion” (p. 521). They developed a three factor scale, but later Birrell et al. (2011) found evidence of two factors.

Furnham and Marks (2013) claim that the TA, TU, and uncertainty avoidance concepts have been used interchangeably (Stewart, Carland, Carland, Watson, & Sweo, 2003; McLain, 1993; Grenier, Barrette, & Ladouceur, 2005). Ellsberg (1961) defined ambiguity as a lack of information that is necessary to understand a situation or to identify all of the possible outcomes. Later Krohne (1989, 1993) concluded that whilst ambiguity is a property of the stimulus, uncertainty is the emotional state that is provoked by it. This is an interesting distinction that appears not to have been followed up.

Grenier et al. (2005) suggested that TA describes a trait that focuses on an individual’s reaction to an ambiguous situation in the present, while TU describes a future-orientated trait, where the individual is reacting to the uncertainty of the future. This partly explains why TA is used in the cognitive and experimental literature and TU in the clinical literature.

Risk-taking propensity is also similar to TA (Lauriola, Levin, & Hart, 2007; McLain, 2009). Ellsberg (1961) distinguished decisions under ambiguity from risky decision making in terms of knowledge of outcomes and probabilities: Behavioral decision scientists usually define ambiguous decision making as a situation in which there is an unknown distribution of outcome probabilities for at least one of the options, whereas the probabilities are known in risky decision-making, but outcomes are not.

Some more recent papers have attempted to “unpack” the concept. Thus Rosen, Ivanova, and Knäuper (2014) aimed to differentiate intolerance of uncertainty from three related but distinct constructs: intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty orientation, and need for cognitive closure. The systematic review concluded that both intolerance of uncertainty and intolerance of ambiguity are similar in that they lead to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences due to uncertainty, while the need for cognitive closure and uncertainty orientation are similar in the sense that they appear to have implications for motivation. Also, intolerance of uncertainty may be distinct from intolerance of ambiguity, as the latter construct focuses on the “here and now,” while the former emphasizes the apprehension of events occurring in the future (Grenier et al., 2005), although the lack of strong empirical support for this assertion is acknowledged. Finally they noted that intolerance of uncertainty may be discriminated from uncertainty orientation and the need for cognitive closure as the former focuses on the psychological effects of uncertainty and the latter two center on individuals’ desires to approach or avoid uncertainty.

Chumakova and Kornilov (2013) proposed that individual differences in attitudes towards uncertainty are ingrained in expectations concerning different sources and subjective evaluations of uncertainty. In their study, they revealed four distinct latent profiles that characterize attitudes towards uncertainty regarding expectations about different sources of uncertainty (personal relationships and environment) and subjective evaluations of uncertainty (negative and positive). The first profile is a general profile of a tolerant person, and the remaining three describe an intolerant person. The two latter profiles emphasize the importance of distinguishing expectations about different sources of uncertainty in understanding attitudes towards uncertainty.

  • Appreciative/adaptive is characterized by an overall low desire for clarity across both sources of uncertainty. Individuals with this profile are effectively “tolerant”; they are less inclined to view uncertainty as threatening and more inclined to view it (and the corresponding complex novel situations) as a challenging opportunity for self-expression and development. They accept the existence of contradictions in the environment as fundamental and are prepared to deal with them. Similarly, they do not necessarily expect other people’s behavior to be wholly predictable.

  • Fearing is the direct opposite of Appreciative. Effectively “intolerant,” individuals with this profile hold stronger expectations for both the environment and relationships to be clear, predictable, and simple. They find uncontrollable and unpredictable situations aversive, and when such situations arise, they tend to feel threatened. They are also more likely to exhibit lower-risk readiness and higher interpersonal intolerance for uncertainty.

  • Coping is embodied by a strong desire for the environment to be simple and clear (similar to what is observed for Fearing) and by mild expectations of predictability and clarity in personal relationships. Individuals holding this profile view uncertainty as neither particularly attractive nor threatening. Interestingly, this profile is not related to risk readiness, suggesting situation-specific risk-taking in individuals with this profile. There is also no significant association between this profile and interpersonal intolerance for uncertainty, thus confirming the partial representational independence of different sources of uncertainty.

  • Ambivalent is characterized by low expectations of simplicity from the environment, but a relatively high desire for predictability and clarity in personal relationships. Individuals with this profile tend to perceive uncertainty as both attractive and threatening. Indeed, their scores on these two factors are close to the scores of those holding the Appreciative and Fearing profiles. This profile is not associated with rationality defined as information-seeking, suggesting situation-specific use of coping strategies, rather than general. Further, this profile is significantly but differentially related to different types of intolerance for uncertainty, such that its relation with interpersonal intolerance for uncertainty is positive, while its relation with general intolerance for uncertainty is negative.

Further, gender differences were observed in these profiles: the Appreciative and Fearing were equally distributed among males and females, whereas Coping was more prevalent among men and Ambivalent among women. This means that gender may play a substantial role in the development of particular profiles of attitudes towards uncertainty.

More recently Lauriola, Foschi, Mosca, and Weller (2015) conducted two studies to examine the phenotypic structure of attitude toward ambiguity, in an effort to reconcile shifting conceptual definitions and the lack of empirical studies that adequately cover its content domain. Study 1 administered a battery of questionnaires regarding ambiguity tolerance/intolerance on a sample of 666 individuals from two countries. The hierarchical structure of 133 items from seven scales revealed three major factors: Discomfort with Ambiguity, Moral Absolutism/Splitting, and Need for Complexity and Novelty.

  • Discomfort with Ambiguity describes unpleasant feelings associated with the experience of ambiguity in interpersonal relationships, social, or job situations. Thus, this dimension epitomizes intolerance of ambiguity as a more generalized “threat” reaction (Budner, 1962, p. 30), in addition to experienced social–interpersonal distress with ambiguity. In this regard, Discomfort with Ambiguity also bears a resemblance to one of the major second-order factors reported by Furnham (1994).

  • Moral Absolutism/Splitting, akin to Furnham’s second-order factor, closely reflects some primary characteristics that originally defined intolerance of ambiguity, i.e., the “inability to allow for the coexistence of positive and negative features in the same object,” and the “acceptance of statements representing a rigid white-black view of life” (Budner, 1962, p. 394).

  • Need for Complexity and Novelty reveals a more tolerant and approach-oriented attitude toward complex and novel situations. This dimension appears to be most similar to Budner’s (1962) conceptualization of ambiguity tolerance. In this study, Need for Complexity and Novelty is clearly composed of two lower order facets that closely resemble characteristics today ascribed to traits such as Need for Cognition and Openness to Experience. This interpretation was also corroborated by significant positive correlations between Need for Complexity and Novelty and both Openness and Extraversion, two Big Five traits that are predictive of active interest in a variety of experiences for its own sake (e.g., Markon et al., 2005). In view of this, Need for Complexity and Novelty also resembles a mixture of Furnham’s (1994) peripheral second-order factors (i.e., ambiguity acceptance, venture, and risk seeking).

Also using a sample of 771 individuals from two countries, study 2 ran a confirmatory analysis on selected factor markers, showing acceptable fit a bifactor model in each group, with Discomfort with Ambiguity, Moral Absolutism/Splitting, and Need for Complexity and Novelty belonging to the same general construct—a basic ambiguity avoiding attitude. The findings show that a general factor is necessary to model the multifaceted structure of the construct in a bifactor model. Consistent with research, the results suggest that ambiguity tolerance and intolerance have often given rise to independent factors rather than to a single bipolar factor (Bors et al., 2010; Hazen et al., 2012). Taken altogether, attitude toward ambiguity can be best conceptualized as a multidimensional construct involving affective (Discomfort with Ambiguity), cognitive (Moral Absolutism/Splitting), and epistemic (Need for Complexity and Novelty) components.

McLain, Kefallonitis, and Armani (2015), anticipating the new world of neuroscience, have noted the following:

Because ambiguity tolerance is an individual difference construct describing how individuals process, interpret, and react to information, it is worthwhile to examine it from a neurological perspective. The brain reacts to stimuli as informed by sensory mechanisms.

(p. 16)

Correlational Studies

There have been various attempts to look at the concurrent, convergent, and discriminant validity of TA. Most of the work in this area remains correlational. An example is a recent study by Norr et al. (2013), who looked at the relationships between intolerance of uncertainty, anxiety sensitivity, distress tolerance, discomfort intolerance and social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive and worry symptoms. Two nonclinical samples completed questionnaires regarding vulnerability factors and measures assessing anxiety symptoms. The results show that intolerance of uncertainty was significantly related with anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for transdiagnostic risk variables (i.e., negative affect and trait anxiety). Taken altogether, the established link between intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety symptoms support the notion that intolerance of uncertainty is better represented as a more general anxiety vulnerability, rather than a vulnerability for specific disorders.

Furnham and Marks (2013) set about an extensive search for all TA and TU papers published since 1995 and found 30 studies. They made four observations from this research effort:

First, they use a wide range of measures of TA, not all of which correlate very highly with each other. Second, many have modest population groups, though a number have populations over 200. Third, the number of variables correlated with measures of TA were extremely varied from art preference, though identity conflict to thinking style. There seemed no thematic or programmatic effort on any research group in this area. Correlations tended to be modest. Fourth, most studies had their hypotheses confirmed showing how TA was conceptually related to a variety of other measures and behaviors.

(p. 719)

Experimental Work

Lauriola and Levin (2001) showed that differences in attitude towards ambiguity are consistent with attitudes towards risk, in that a preference for the ambiguous predicts a preference for risky options. Yet the relationship only proved significant when participants were avoiding a loss in the Risky Decision-making Task as opposed to seeking a gain. It was concluded that attitudes towards ambiguity were more important in the decision-making procedure. Lauriola, Levin, and Hart (2007) repeated this experiment and found that the Ambiguity-Probability Tradeoff task negatively correlated with a TA self-report questionnaire and optimism scores, and positively correlated with regret-based decision style. A high score was also predictive of later ambiguous choices in a different domain. These findings support the existence of a stable dispositional trait underlying reactions to risk and ambiguity.

In an interesting and important paper, Endres, Camp, and Milner (2015) tried to assess the malleability of tolerance of ambiguity through the manipulation of situational ambiguity in the form of structured and unstructured interviews. In study 1, 324 students faced varied levels of ambiguity, and their pre- and post-experiment self-efficacy was examined. The results show that participants in the high ambiguity condition reported lowest change in self-efficacy, followed by moderate ambiguity condition, while participants in the highest ambiguity condition reported highest change in self-efficacy. Performance ratings also varied on a marginally significant level, with ratings for low and high ambiguity conditions being higher than the moderate ambiguity condition. In study 2, there was no manipulation involved; students completed questionnaires on tolerance of ambiguity and self-efficacy. As a whole, the results indicate that tolerance of ambiguity may be malleable, rather than stable. Less ambiguity was found to have led to higher tolerance of ambiguity than high ambiguity in a situation of less structure and information.

In a series of five studies, Sagioglou and Forstmann (2013) tried to determine whether activating Christian religious concepts increases intolerance of ambiguity and judgment certainty. According to the logic of contextual priming, being exposed to Christian religious content should make the associated norms accessible, e.g., the reliance on dichotomous moral categories such as right versus wrong (virtuous vs. sinful). The study proposed that the activation of this normative structure by Christian primes should increase ambiguity intolerance. In the first four studies, Christian concepts were semantically activated through priming: Participants in the religion priming condition were presented with five sets of religion-related words. In study 1, semantically activating Christian concepts increased self-reported ambiguity intolerance. The primed Christian concepts increased self-reported preference for a non-ambiguous visual stimulus, instead of ambiguous visual stimulus, as well as judgment certainty in an effort to reduce experienced ambiguity in study 3a and 3b. In study 4, the laboratory findings were extended to real-life environments. The results show that individuals exposed to a cathedral reported increased ambiguity intolerance, compared to those exposed to a civic square. Overall, the findings support the proposition that processing Christian religious stimuli causally influences a person’s reaction to ambiguous information, such that participants’ intolerance of ambiguity was increased when they think about religion. The pattern was consistent across differentially Christian cultures, suggesting that cognitive associations formed through culturally transmitted religious knowledge are strong enough to direct behavior, irrespective of practical experience.

In many ways it is paradoxical that a concept like TA, which is grounded in experimental work, has attracted so little work experimentally as either an independent or dependent variable.

The Measurement of TA

Table 1. Measures of the TA scales


Name of Scale


No. of Items


Herman, Stevens, Bird, Mendenhall, and Oddou, (2010)

The Tolerance of Ambiguity scale




McLain (2009)

Multiple Stimulus Types Ambiguity Tolerance Scale -II (MSTAT-II)




Buhr and Dugas (2006)

Intolerance of Ambiguity Scale




Lange and Houran (1999)

Rasch model AT-20




Durrheim and Foster (1997)

Attitudinal Ambiguity Tolerance Scale




McLain (1993)

Multiple Stimulus Types Ambiguity Tolerance Scale -I




Norton (1975)

MAT 50




MacDonald (1970)





Budner (1962)

16 Item scale




O’Connor (1952)





Table 2. Psychometric properties of scales



Concurrent validity


Herman, Stevens, Bird, Mendenhall, and Oddou, (2010)

α‎ = 0.73


Budner scale factor analysis; removed 4 items with low correlations to the scale, added 5 items (cross-culturally relevant, compliment existing items by capturing the full content of TA; familiarity, conflicting perspectives, change and value incongruence. 5 more items removed. Factor analysis—4 factors

McLain (2009)

α‎ = 0.83


3 factors; general AT was main factor. Correlates with MacDonald, not Budner. Correlates with sensation-seeking/risk orientation, non-significant for social desirability. Correlates with sensation-seeking, perceived risk, stress, perceived uncertainty. Not “time in a hazardous job”

Lange and Houran (1999)

KR -20 Item reliability = 0.93 and person reliability = 0.68


No new validity built on AT-20

Durrheim and Foster (1997)

α‎ = 0.81, Test-retest (r=.66)

NO (Budner scale correlated for White group only)

Concurrent validity—Correlates with Ambivalence scale. Factor analysis—different domains of authority, performance on the scale was meaningfully linked to the content, e.g., content-specific. Distinguished between criterion groups (blacks vs whites). Criterion group validity—difference in AT towards items of the Subtle Racism scale. Correlated with Budner scale positively, negatively and orthogonally.

McLain (1993)

α‎ = 0.86


Correlates with Budner, Storey and Aldag and MacDonald. Correlates with willingness to take risks, receptivity to change, negatively to dogmatism (not to cognitive complexity—poor reliability 0.58 scale).

Norton (1975)

(K-R 20) r = 0.88 Test-retest = 0.86, 10–12 weeks. Kuder-Richardson reliability r = 0.38

YES (Furnham, 1994)

Content validity—content analysis and faking studies. Criterion validity—correlates with dogmatism and rigidity. Construct—measures of willingness to volunteer for an ambiguous study, aesthetic judgement, content analysis of verbal behavior and behavioral dramatization

MacDonald (1970)

Split half reliability (KR 20) = 0.73. Internal consistency = 0.86.

Yes (Furnham, 1994; McLain, 1993)

Correlated with Rokeach’s dogmatism scale, the Gough-Sanford Rigidity scale and church attendance, not social desirability.

Budner (1962)

Retest correlation of 0.85 α‎ = 0.49

Yes (Furnham, 1994; McLain, 1993)

Budner authoritarianism, attitudes toward parents, and machiavellianism. In addition to these relatively broad areas, a third concern was with the role of intolerance of ambiguity in a specific area of occupational choice, that of medical education

O’Connor (1952)

YES (Furnham, 1994)

A number of TA measures exist. Furnham and Marks (2013) found eight published self-report measures. However, there are other unpublished tests (Saunders, 1955) and those where little psychometric work was attempted to assess their validity (Eysenck, 1954). Some studies have even used inkblot tests (Leichsenring, Steuernagel, Steuernagel, & Meyer, 2007) to measure TA.

Most of the tests of TA are self-report questionnaires (Furnham & Marks, 2013). Budner (1962), who devised a 16-item test where items referred to one of three types of ambiguous situations: novelty, complexity, and insolubility. The scale was validated on 17 different populations and shown to be free of acquiescent and social desirability response tendencies. The test-retest correlation was good (0.85 over 2 months), yet the internal alpha was poor (0.49). The wording of items in this scale have been criticized for their failure to represent the appropriate stimulus, or even suggest ambiguity at all (McLain, 2009). Budner saw TA as a “non-specific” trait that does not lead to specific behaviors or evaluations that are not manifestations of TA itself.

Rydell and Rosen (1966) and Rydell (1966) reported on the development and validation of another scale, which consisted of 16 true-false items. The test was validated with the use of semantic differential ratings of contradictory and non-contradictory adjective-noun concept combinations (Rydell, 1966). MacDonald (1970) added four extra items to attempt to improve the psychometric quality of the scale called the AT-20.

Lange and Houran (1999) argued that an Item Response Theory (ITR) framework has more appropriate scaling properties and differentiates itself from the AT-20 from a scaling point of view. Results showed that the positive item-rest point biserial correlations provide evidence of the scale’s uni-dimensionality.

Norton (1975) argued that measures of TA were “flawed by low internal reliability and the absence of adequate validity evidence” (p. 607) because, paradoxically, of the ambiguities associated with the term ambiguous. He noted issues such as: multiple meanings; vagueness, incompleteness, fragmentation; as a probability; unstructured; lack of information; uncertainty; inconsistencies, contradictions, contraries, and unclearness. Norton developed a 50-item measure (MAT-50), which was tested seven times to develop high reliability. He set out to determine three types of validity: content validity (through content analysis and faking studies), criterion-related validity (through correlations with measures of dogmatism and rigidity), and construct validity (through measures of willingness to volunteer for an ambiguous study, aesthetic judgment, a content analysis of verbal behavior, and behavioral dramatization). Despite these efforts, the scale has not been widely used.

Lorsch and Morse (1974) developed a 7-item scale with the aim to test members of organizations on their TA. This scale has been modified a number of times in order to fit more appropriately with researchers’ needs (Acedo & Jones, 2007; Caligiuri & Tarique, 2012; Gurel, Altinay, & Daniele, 2010). Gupta and Govindarajan (1984) later reduced the number of items to four and reported modest internal reliability.

McLain (1993) developed a 22-item measure called the Multiple Stimulus Types Ambiguity Tolerance (MSTAT). McLain attempted to redefine TA as “a range, from rejection to attraction, of reactions to stimuli perceived as unfamiliar, complex, dynamically uncertain, or subject to multiple conflicting interpretations” (p. 184). In 2009, McLain refined the MSTAT scale, which is a 13-item scale derived from the original 22 items.

Durrheim and Foster (1997) conceived TA not as psychological trait but as a content specific construct. This is consistent with Frenkel-Brunswick’s (1949) original construct of TA as an “attitudinal variable,” which was not assumed to generalize across different social objects. They suggest that intercorrelations of TA measures are “spurious relationships between shared attitudinal scale content” (p. 741) and that the relationship is a methodological artefact.

They developed the Attitudinal Ambiguity Tolerance scale (AAT), which is based on the uni-polar scaling procedure that was originated by Kaplan (1972) and subsequently used by Scott and colleagues to assess ambivalence (Scott, 1966, 1969; Scott, Osgood, & Peterson, 1979). This scale measures evaluative performance and was found to have an adequate internal reliability (α‎ = 0.81) and test-retest reliability (r = 0.66). A factor analysis revealed four factors, which suggests a multidimensional structure and supports the original hypothesis.

Although Durrheim and Foster’s (1997) criticisms of the TA concept seem valid, they have largely been ignored by contemporary research for three reasons: The focus of the TA concept has shifted away from prejudice and authoritarianism and moved towards reactions in response to insufficient information; the psychometric qualities of TA scales have increased; and empirical research supports a one-dimensional theoretical model.

Wolfradt and Rademacher (1999) developed and validated a scale for interpersonal TA. This scale was designed for use as a clinical tool. The scale is not widely used, however, despite good internal reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.86; Wolfradt, Oubaid, Straube, Bischoff, & Mischo, 1999).

Herman et al. (2010) proposed a new measure of TA that aimed to better understand its link to cross-cultural phenomena and improved conceptual dimensionality and psychometric evidence. They reasoned that context-dependent measures should be developed in areas that may have problems with the generalized conception. They used Budner’s (1962) measure and added and removed items to improve the measure. Factor analysis distinguished four factors: valuing diverse others, change, challenging perspectives, and unfamiliarity. Valuing diverse others has not appeared in other recent conceptualizations (McLain, 1993, 2009), which the authors relate to the interpersonal nature of cross-cultural settings. This 12-item scale is a useful tool for measuring TA in cross-cultural contexts, and it may revolutionize the measurement of TA, starting a trend in the development of context-specific measures.

One of the latest scales to be developed is the Career Decision Ambiguity Scale, developed by Xu and Tracey (2015). The scale, which has three identifiable dimensions, was constructed to use in vocational psychology and has promising psychometric validation evidence.


The TA concept has gone through changes since its conception in 1948. The focus has now shifted to reflect the contemporary definition of ambiguity (Ellsberg, 1961) and is related to similar concepts that describe the absence of information, such as risk-taking behavior and tolerance of uncertainty. The research has covered a wide variety of fields, and new measures are being created for use in specific domains. Psychometrically sound measures (McLain, 1993, 2009; Herman et al., 2010) and literature reviews (e.g., Grenier et al., 2005) have helped to clarify the construct definition, which has been ironically described as “ambiguous” (McLain, 2009). The new measures are better equipped to test individual levels of TA and therefore increase the reliability of future research.

Still there appears to be no studies that have attempted to determine the heritability of TA, which would be a question that behavior geneticists and personality psychologists would be interested in. Nor have the tests been frequently subjected to structural equation modelling to determine both the facets or factors of TA, as well as its determinants.

The interest in TA seems to have shifted from differential to clinical and organizational psychology, disciplines that see it as a measure of adaptation and healthy functioning. However, there are still many researchers very interested in the topic. Thus, David McLain, in an introduction to a Frontiers in Psychology issue in 2015, wrote the following:

Individual variation in reaction to incomplete or difficult-to-interpret information is a factor in perceiving, understanding, interpreting, and performing in many situations. The focal trait is ambiguity tolerance but it is closely related to such widely-studied traits as risk-taking propensity, uncertainty orientation, need for certainty, need for closure, and other traits. Long of interest among researchers, interest in ambiguity tolerance continues to inspire new avenues of inquiry in both the basic and applied sciences. This collection of papers will describe current thinking.

Examples of topics:

Conceptual Foundations

  1. 1. Are reactions to stimuli that are unfamiliar, complex, uncertain, risky, incomplete, obscured, vague, conflicting, or otherwise ambiguous similar or different?

  2. 2. Where does neuronal activity take place when information is perceived as unfamiliar, complex, uncertain, risky, incomplete, obscured, vague, conflicting, or otherwise ambiguous? Does this activity vary in intensity, location, or other property as a function of ambiguity tolerance or other inherent orientation toward perceived situational information characteristics?

  3. 3. How are decision processes affected by perceived information quality. How do these perceptions influence speed or information processing among individuals who vary in ambiguity tolerance?

Measurement and Methodology

  1. 1. What is the current state-of-the-art regarding the measurement of traits and perceptions related to ambiguity, risk, uncertainty, or other information properties?

  2. 2. With advances in technology that can assess brain activity, reactions to ambiguous stimuli can be measured at the neurological level.

Implications for Practice

  1. 1. What is the current state of knowledge regarding individual differences in response to risk, uncertainty, information quality, or ambiguity and their influences on single or repeated decisions in specific domains. For example, what is our current understanding of the effect of uncertainty tolerance on career choice, job performance, or long-term career satisfaction?

  2. 2. To what extent does ambiguity tolerance, when encountering perceived ambiguity, influence the decisiveness, speed, or accuracy of decision making?

  3. 3. Does ambiguity tolerance impact interpretations of the ethical aspects of a situation?

  4. 4. What decision processes are effective when decisions are repeatedly based on ambiguous information? Do these vary with the individual’s tolerance for ambiguity?

  5. 5. What is the state of knowledge regarding perceived environmental uncertainty and its role in strategic planning?

  6. 6. Does ambiguity tolerance influence responses to ambiguous signals or incomplete information in safety-critical or crisis situations? For example, how does ambiguity tolerance influence triage in the delivery of emergency medical services? Does ambiguity tolerance influence the behavior of pilots undergoing flight emergency training.

  7. 7. How does ambiguity tolerance influence a health care provider’s reaction to a patient who provides ambiguous health information? How might ambiguity tolerance in these instances influence the recording of health records information?

  8. 8. Does sensitivity to uncertainty about the security of personal information influence information-sharing behavior?

  9. 9. Does ambiguity tolerance affect information search?

  10. 10. Does ambiguity tolerance influence the task performance of an auditor?

  11. 11. Does ambiguity tolerance moderate learning a second language?

  12. 12. Does ambiguity tolerance affect a consumer’s responses to advertising?

These questions are testament both to the fecundity of the concept and the way researchers have moved forward using modern developments in application, methodology, and theory to update the 65 TA concept.


I would like to express my gratitude to Alixe Lay and Joseph Marks for so much help in finding the studies. This entry is an update of Furnham and Marks (2013).


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