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None of us is comfortable with uncertainty, and we all differ in how we respond when faced with information that is insufficient or conflicting (ambiguous situations). One of the great gifts bequeathed to us by our evolutionary development is the ability to predict – to make assumptions based upon past experience – which allows us to prepare for what will happen in a variety of situations. For example, June is usually warmer than February (where I live), so people plan to get married/go on holiday/plant beans and pumpkins in June.

The trouble begins when we start to believe our assumptions to be reliable predictions.  We don’t believe that the weather forecast is an accurate statement about what will come to pass, and no more should we trust our assumptions. But we do!

When we begin to act, or prepare to act, before the event because we assume something will happen in a certain way, we tend to see what we are expecting to see, and thus we filter out information that does not fit with our ‘prediction’. In so doing we may perpetuate unpleasant experiences and preclude opportunities for learning something new.

A simple example of this is my friend Dave, who has a reputation as the office bore (you can substitute any type of behaviour here). When people see Dave coming they either take a detour or, if they have to talk to him, switch off and go into a routine of courteous but meaningless responses while waiting for an opportunity to escape. The result in both cases is the same; they don’t get to hear whether Dave has anything interesting to say, and they are proved right in their assumptions. For Dave’s part, he has his social ineptitude confirmed and is given no opportunity to learn his way out of it by practicing meaningful social interaction.

We make assumptions to save time and to reduce uncertainty, in this they are useful. But we need to distinguish where there is uncertainty that implies real risk, and the sort that just makes us feel uncomfortable. Avoiding risk is sensible, (and probably why we have evolved the ability to make assumptions in the first place). When our preconceived ideas start to limit either our ability to see clearly or our openness to new experiences, however, they can cause problems. So much of life is uncertain that it is unavoidable that we will feel uncomfortable for much of it, so it is more useful to be able embrace the uncertainty and get used to the discomfort.

There are situations where it is vitally important to reduce uncertainty and where a low tolerance for ambiguity is an advantage, think of the role of surgeon, or airline pilot for example. But more generally we face daily ambiguities in our lives where procedures and outcome cannot be controlled or predicted as they can with a surgical procedure or controlling an aircraft. Human relationships and how people behave are obvious examples.

“Life”, it has been said, “is ambiguous”. So how does someone who has a low tolerance for ambiguity deal with life? Flexibilty: as long as they can apply different levels of tolerance to different situations there is no problem. Someone who needs a high degree of precision and to reduce certainty in their work can also adopt a more appropriate level of tolerance when waiting for a bus or managing their children, for example.

We are all different in our innate abilities to tolerate ambiguity and therefore to the degree that we are comfortable with life’s uncertainties. A higher level of tolerance for the things we cannot control and the uncertainty we experience is linked to creativity, lifestyle, management skills and resilience. Lower levels of tolerance for uncertainty can make us risk averse, overly worried, and tend to draw conclusions prematurely because we don’t allow ourselves the time to ‘wait and see’, gather evidence or reach a balanced conclusion.

Two conclusions

This post has two possible endings. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity you will want to have a clear answer (preferably the ‘right’ one). If you have a high tolerance and are comfortable with uncertainty then you probably won’t be looking for an answer at all, but I’ve added one below anyway.

1) Working intuitively from your assumptions is a great skill, but beware of being too reliant on it because as we have seen it can lead to inflexibility and control-freakery. It also stifles creativity and it can be really tiring trying to reduce uncertainty all the time. The answer is to learn to lighten up and remember that, as Heraclitus said, “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it.” If you want to know more about how to do this, see either of the titles I’ve listed below.

2) If you’ve read this far and recognised that you are able to allow yourself and others some latitude when faced with uncertainty, then I’d say “go with the flow”, but there is a cautionary note: Some people might mis-read your higher tolerance for uncertainty as ‘laissez-faire’ and think that you just don’t care about things. You might want to challenge that assumption.

See also

Von Oech, R., (2001), Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It), The Free Press, New York.

Marinoff, L., (2000), Plato Not Prozac, HarperCollins, New York

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