Tolerance for Ambiguity

It’s difficult to explain what tolerance to ambiguity is. It has to do with a person’s ability to cope and adapt as things around them change. Tolerance for ambiguity is important because it can help people work effectively in areas of uncertainty. One thing we know about our students future is that it is a VUCA world and we need to give them strategies to navigate a world where things change at a fast pace. One way we can do this is by helping them  develop the affective skill of tolerating ambiguity.

Signs that a person tolerates ambiguity

A person that is able to tolerate ambiguity shows common characteristics. Here are a few traits (Skaggs, n.d.):

  • Not bound by categorization

    Categorization is defined as sorting out objects or ideas based on their similarities and differences (Cohen & Lefebvre, 2005). A person not bound by this means that they can resort and regroup ideas depending on the situation. They also avoid a habit called functional fixedness (Duncker, 1945), which is only seeing ideas or objects from how they were grouped from the start.

  • Comfortable with uncertainty

    Ambiguity and uncertainty usually go hand-in-hand. While ambiguity focuses on how something does not have a clear meaning, uncertainty is defined as “not knowing something well” or “something that is not constant” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). It would be hard to make a decision when one does not know what goes into making such a decision. Being tolerable to uncertainty means that they are willing to change that uncertainty to certainty while relying on intuition and previous knowledge.

  • A low fear response to the unfamiliar or change

    People that have a low tolerance for ambiguity may have a hard time making a decision. Some reactions in this situation would include “freezing up” or “being indecisive” This can happen when exposed to unfamiliar, changing situations or even when presented with new information that challenges an old belief.

  • Acceptance of novelty

    Novelty is a synonym to originality. People with tolerance for ambiguity also tolerate things that are out of the ordinary. Skaggs (n.d.) says that disregarding these outlier ideas can decrease one’s chances of getting great ideas and their potential.

  • Tolerance for fluctuating stimuli

    Stimuli is a fancier term for various factors that can affect a situation. When new technologies, methods and processes are changing due to the world changing at a fast pace – we need to equip students with the brain power and emotional flexibility to be able to stop what they are doing and do it another way to move with the times. One day, students might be sitting in a classroom – next they might need to learn a new program on the computer just to finish the work they did by hand at school (wink, wink — covid pandemic).

    We live in a different world and it is changing quicker than we expect. Having students understand that we can have our routines but we need to be flexible and roll with the punches is we are to thrive in environmental uncertainty.

Ambiguity and creativity

Let’s take a look at the links between ambiguity and creativity through this study.

Creativity and Tolerance of Ambiguity: An Empirical Study

In this study written in 2008, Zenasni and his group performed an experiment that involved testing parents and their adolescent children in three different activities: a divergent thinking task, a story-writing task, and a self-evaluation of their own creative attitudes and behavior. The self-evaluation was done using two different rating systems: “Measurement of Ambiguity Tolerance” (Norton, 1975; Zenasni & Lubart, 2001) and “Behavior Scale of Tolerance/Intolerance for Ambiguity” (Stoycheva, 1998, 2003).

They were able to show that a person with a high level of ambiguity tolerance is likely to exhibit creative traits. The reason they had parents and their children participate in the study is that they wanted to figure out whether this relationship had some effect on the other’s creativity and tolerance for ambiguity. They found that neither affected each other’s tolerance of ambiguity, however, the parents’ creativity can  influence their children.

We can conclude that parents play a large roll in this but as educators we can effect this too!

Tips on how to foster tolerance of ambiguity in the classroom

  • Accept students’ input on activities
  • Freedom of choice
  • Encouraging more student participation
  • Allow for mistakes and help reframe failure
  • Encourage to stress beyond comfort zone
  • Keep the classroom a safe space
  • Model what it means to be tolerant of ambiguity

As educators, we need to teach students how to be more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty. In their future endeavors, there will be plenty of situations that can’t be predicted or planned for and we need to equip them with a mindset that will allow them to remain calm in those moments. Like all things personality related, tolerance for ambiguity is a skill that can be taught through the classroom.


Skaggs. (2019, September 5). TOLERANCE FOR AMBIGUITY. Industrial Designers Society of America – IDSA.

ZENASNI, F., BESANÇON, M., & LUBART, T. (2008). Creativity and Tolerance of Ambiguity: An Empirical Study. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 42(1), 61–73.