Ambiguous Situations

In general, ambiguity is an uncertainty or vagueness in a situation where more than one interpretations, maybe even contradictory, can be possible. Situational ambiguity results from three major sources:
a) novelty - a new situation with no familiar signs
b) complexity - lots of cues or information to be taken into consideration
c) insolubility - contradictory with an unsure correct response
(“Examining tolerance”)


Individual’s Reaction

Research has also looked at the effect of ambiguous situations on an individual as well as the way the situation is perceived. At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, psychologists studied the cardiovascular response to ambiguous social situations in adolescents. The study determined that adolescents who perceived a threat during an ambiguous situation were more likely to have a higher systolic blood pressure than those with a low-threat perception (“Interpretations of ambiguous situations”).

A related study at Erasmus University in the Netherlands looked at ambiguity and indecisiveness. Fifty undergraduate students completed a scale measuring indecisiveness and also evaluated situations as concerning or non-concerning. The study found that indecisiveness creates worst case scenario reasoning and indecisive individuals are more likely to interpret an ambiguous situation as threatening (“Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations”).

This research, and other similar studies, has aided psychologists define an individual’s ambiguity tolerance, “the way people perceive, interpret, and react to ambiguous situations.” Someone who is intolerant of ambiguity associates these types of situations with anxiety and danger and consider ambiguity as confusing and something to avoid. On the other hand, an individual who is tolerant of ambiguity tends to recognize and analyze these types of situations without overreacting or jumping to the “worst-case scenario.” They are able to be more adaptive and can endure the anxiety of the situation, allowing them more time to come up with different responses (“Examining tolerance”).

Group reaction
In 1936, Muzafer Sherif conducted an experiment to test a group’s reaction to being put in an ambiguous situation. He discovered that in ambiguous situations people tend to look to others with more or better knowledge for guidance. An individual will assume in an ambiguous situation that others know more than them and depend on the group to determine the proper course of action. This tendency is known as informational conformity ("Conformity")

Learn more about ambiguity tolerance and conformity

Pop Culture
Asch Elevator Experiment: While this video demonstrates conformity to a group, it also relates to the reaction of an individual in a group in an ambiguous situation. The victim in the elevator, unsure of what is going on, will turn himself along with the rest of the group for no logical reason other than if everyone else is doing it, it must be the right thing to do.

While there has been no definitive research done on this topic, almost every incident of flirting includes a sense of ambiguity, where neither party knows exactly what the other is thinking. In pop culture, many movies and television shows depict flirting scenes where it is obvious the two individuals are nervous, most likely with a high BP from the ambiguous situation.

NHS Culture
There are lots of examples of ambiguous situations in a high school setting. One specific example is on the first day of school, no one knows what to do when they first enter a classroom. Usually classmates look to others because they assume that, while they don’t know what to do, someone else will. The group will quickly conform to the atmosphere of the room based on the actions of others, similar to the research done by Sherif. People with a low tolerance for ambiguity will most likely dread the uncertainty of the first day of school, while people with high tolerance will embrace the new opportunities and be able to adapt to new classrooms and teachers more easily.

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McLeod, Saul. "Conformity."Simply Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <>.

"Examining tolerance for ambiguity in the domain of educational leadership. - Free Online Library." Free Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2012. <>.

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