Hope, Living with Uncertainties, and Tolerance for Ambiguity

Summary. In the light of uncertain future threatening outcomes, present ambiguous information often is interpreted more negatively than it would be the case in a safe context. Black-and-white thinking is hindering positive deciphering of ambiguous information. People educated in open-mindedness and who have learned to tolerate ambiguity can better persevere in their tolerance even in situations of danger. Individuals’ dependencies on hierarchical power can cause closed mental systems that are increasingly unable to tolerate differences, ambiguities, and uncertainties. The promotion of hope might be a useful approach to reduce uncertainty intolerance that leaves more room for thoughtful and empathic decisions. It will be crucial how we instill hope and support our children to live constructively with uncertainties while retaining a high tolerance for ambiguity and open-mindedness as required to find the solutions sought for the benefit of all. What are your learnings from uncertain/ambiguous situations and how did you learn to develop a tolerance for it?

mathias-sager-hope-uncertainty-tolerance-ambiguity


The difference between ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ambiguity’

Intolerance of Uncertainty and Intolerance of Ambiguity often have been confused. Although IU and IA are overlapping concepts, they can be differentiated as follows: Intolerance of uncertainty refers future negative events that cause worries, and intolerance for ambiguity refers to adverse stimuli in the present [3]. Also, intolerance of uncertainty is built on the fact that information on outcomes of a situation is missing while intolerance for ambiguity is characterized by ambivalent or conflicting information available on the situation [5].

The effect of intolerance for uncertainty on tolerance for ambiguity

As per the discussion around the article https://mathias-sager.com/2018/06/12/tolerance-for-ambiguity-as-a-gateway-to-leadership-opportunity/ it became clear to me that tolerance for ambiguity respectively Intolerance for Ambiguity might be dependent a lot on context too. Thanks to all the involved for triggering that further research. While having assumed general business situations in times of relative peace in democratic countries in the last article, individual’s behavior in highly stressful (e.g., military) conditions in threatening environments needs to be looked at specifically, including both the concepts of uncertainty and ambiguity. I hope this article can contribute to that discussion.

Tolerance for ambiguity of an individual can be reduced in the context of threat through uncertainty, and especially when there is increased intolerance of uncertainty. In other words, in the light of uncertain future threatening outcomes, present ambiguous information is interpreted more negatively than it would be the case in a safe context [4]. Besides, not only the threat itself but the possibly stronger propagation of stereotyping (e.g., of enemies) might promote black-and-white thinking that is hindering an open mindset as required to positively decipher ambiguous information. People educated in open-mindedness and who have learned to tolerate ambiguity can better persevere in their tolerance even in situations of danger [7].

We generally have a choice between concern and cruelty. But as the example above showed, sometimes not-so-obvious factors influence our predispositions for one of the options because intolerance for an ambiguous situation, induced by threats of uncertainty, may trigger reactions of self-defense based on uncontrolled prejudices. Interviewing perpetrators in the Rwanda genocide revealed that individuals’ dependencies on hierarchical power caused closed mental systems unable to tolerate differences, ambiguities, and uncertainties [10].

Hope and resilience to endure uncertainty

In our times of continued pervasiveness of populations living in environments of war and disasters, resilience is a further important concept. Hope as related to resilience is enabling individuals to imagine a better future and to endure the present despite the uncertainty for such an achievement [9]. That way, the promotion of hope might be a useful approach to reduce uncertainty intolerance and consequently to increase the tolerance for ambiguity for a more open mindedness that leaves room for thoughtful and empathic decisions.

Growth versus safety orientation

Maslow (1968) made the point that we are oriented toward either growth or safety in our everyday lives and that a growth orientation is more favorable for psychological health and well-being [1]. When self-protection (needs) get reduced, self-awareness can arise and facilitate the appreciation of multiple possibilities in situations, which might be the stage of personal development where tolerance for ambiguity as the capacity to accept paradoxes starts to become feasible [2]. Systems of mass conformity, authoritarianism, and nationalism/racism are offered as a means for safety, unfortunately at the cost of growth possibilities through autonomy, creativity, and the use of reason though. After World War II this became evident and powerful movements toward an open mind of tolerance of ambiguity emerged that could cater to both safety and growth needs [8]. It is a function of societies to prepare the next generation for life, and it will be crucial how we instill hope and support our children to live constructively with uncertainties while retaining a high tolerance for ambiguity and open-mindedness as required to find the solutions sought for the benefit of all [6].

What are your learnings from uncertain/ambiguous situations and how did you learn to develop a tolerance for it?

 

References

[1] Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

[2] Hartman, D., & Zimberoff, D. (2008). Higher Stages of Human Development. Journal Of Heart-Centered Therapies, 11(2), 3-95.

[3] Grenier, S., Barrette, A. M., & Ladouceur, R. (2005). Intolerance of Uncertainty and Intolerance of Ambiguity: Similarities and differences. PERSONALITY AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES, (3). 593.

[4] Neta, M., Cantelon, J., Haga, Z., Mahoney, C. R., Taylor, H. A., & Davis, F. C. (2017). The impact of uncertain threat on affective bias: Individual differences in response to ambiguity. Emotion, 17(8), 1137-1143. doi:10.1037/emo0000349

[5] Kirschner, H., Hilbert, K., Hoyer, J., Lueken, U., & Beesdo-Baum, K. (2016). Psychophsyiological reactivity during uncertainty and ambiguity processing in high and low worriers. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry, 5097-105. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.06.001

[6] Einwanger, J. (2014). Wie riskant ist Sicherheit? (German). Pädiatrie & Pädologie, 49(4), 33. doi:10.1007/s00608-014-0152-4

[7] Bright, L. K., & Mahdi, G. S. (2012). U.S./Arab Reflections on Our Tolerance for Ambiguity. Adult Learning, 23(2), 86-89.

[8] Rohde, J. (2015). Review of The open mind: Cold War politics and the sciences of human nature. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 51(3), 343-345. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21739

[9] Wilson, M. J., & Arvanitakis, J. (2013). The Resilience Complex. M/C Journal, 16(5), 17.

[10] Böhm, T. (2006). Psychoanalytic aspects on perpetrators in genocide: Experiences from Rwanda. Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 29(1), 22-32. doi:10.1080/01062301.2006.10592776

About mathias sager

Independent researcher, artist, social entrepreneur, and leadership and strategy advisor I was born in Zurich in 1975 and grew up in Switzerland. Currently, I’m living in Tokyo. I love open-minded people everywhere and the passion to working relentlessly for developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all his work. I have extensive experience in leadership and management, organizational psychology research, and learning & development practice. I have worked as a teacher, a leadership trainer, as well as a senior manager responsible for client relationships, counseling, and virtual teams around the world. Also, I’m a social entrepreneur and serving as a strategy and leadership advisor in different ways. My goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for the people’s individual well-being and common good alike. Continuously learning himself and keen to help, I appreciate any questions or feedback you may have at any time. Please connect here on any social media, as well as per direct email goodthings@mathias-sager.com.
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18 Responses to Hope, Living with Uncertainties, and Tolerance for Ambiguity

  1. Denisa says:

    Hello Mathias, I would like to share my experiences with creating a start-up company in a domain I had almost no qualifications. To be honest, at the beginning I was not only stressed, but even afraid. I wasn’t able to asses if our whole team would learn fast enough. In the first months, for the first project, I was expecting to fail at every step. Someday we accomplished the project well. And this gave us a lot of trust. It made me reflect on how justfied my fear of uncertainty (and ambiguity) had been. And realized I wouldn’t have had reasons, and for the next uncertain situation I may choose to be optimistic about the results.
    Hope this is of some interest to your topic.
    Greetings,
    Denisa

    • mathias sager says:

      Hello Denisa. What a great example of persevering despite missing or ambiguous information. This is very encouraging for any entrepreneurial journey. Thank you very much for sharing your very relevant insight!

  2. Let me just add that friendliness usually opens doors everywhere in the world .But even then your personal concept of open-minded approaching might collide with another concept of such. So when you meet a Muslim in Ramadan his open-minded attitudes might be then more concentrated on spiritual matters, then he might think you are some kind of alien from another world because the cultural context is very different. So then further discussions are better postponed . Giving each other time an important factor for solutions in this regard.

    • mathias sager says:

      I agree, context matters very much. And as you say, there is a need for starting where people are and communicating over time. Thanks for adding that! All the best!

  3. oldpoet56 says:

    Excellent article.

  4. sue clancy says:

    Good post! Thank you for your efforts and the inclusion of your sources. I think the way I learned to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty was to (as a young kid) do artwork and take art classes. When in the process of creating art the entire project is ambiguous and uncertain from start to finish. With the guidance of a good art teacher I learned to “let it ride” (a phrase one of my teachers used) move on to another section of the artwork and continue drawing/painting despite active feelings of uncertainty about how to proceed on one area. This was good practice – and still is good practice – for dealing with the ambiguities/uncertainties in life. Acknowledge the area of uncertainty and turn focus to what I do know to do. Art making has become for me a metaphor for making my daily life – one moment at a time.

    • mathias sager says:

      Thank you so much, Sue, for that great insight! You describe very well a vital aspect of art. I can entirely relate to that. Positive thinking in the process, openness to deviate intuitively from initial thoughts, and reacting to unforeseen developments in an agile way are all qualities required in art creation. What a lesson for life itself, indeed. All the best!

  5. alits1 says:

    There are so many interesting points in this article, you raise many questions for me to ponder. I particularly like your reflections in the final paragraph. Do you have any thoughts about how personality type helps or hinders tolerance to ambiguous situations? and how one might deal with the effects of this?

    • mathias sager says:

      Thank you very much for your nice feedback!! And thanks a lot also for the great question that I understand is related to nature/nurture debate. While there are numerous personality frameworks, tolerance for ambiguity may be (partially) mapped to personality traits such as, for example, ‘openness to experience’ of the Big Five inventory. To not getting lost in such a detailed exercise, I would say that the two basic choices we have are whether we see the world optimistically or from a pessimist perspective. I think we have always had a choice whatever we assume a positive or negative outlook regardless of trait tendencies that current personality assessments would reveal about us. While there seem to be some inborn personality characteristics, characteristics can evolve and can be developed with more or less effort. It is for sure possible to become tolerant for ambiguity whatever one’s initial personal disposition. I hope I could answer your question a bit? What do you think?

  6. Patty says:

    Crucial indeed, Mathias. I hope our (future) children of this world will be (come) secure and brave enough to tackle the narcissists and/or racists. I still have hope they will. So yes, hope is still key.

    • mathias sager says:

      Nice, Patty! And because there is hope, we have still time to help them too respectively to contribute our bit as well. For example: Maybe our discussion(s) appear for someone in the future at the right time in an encouraging way. Hope giving hope:-)

  7. Ravisingh says:

    superb! loved it!
    Thank you so much for following my blog. I respect your drcision!

  8. Ravisingh says:

    you are welcome,Sir!

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