Ambiguity Tolerance

Getting your Neighbors to Mask-up: Ambiguity Tolerance and Intolerance

There are some very solid findings in psychology, so we have a very reliable notion of how we respond to ambiguity. The bottom line is that when we are in novel situations like the novel #COVID19 pandemic, we aren’t sure what to do, so we look to those around us for guidance.

This one phenomenon of ambiguity — if you’re interested in the supporting science, I’ll explain further below — does two things for us: (1) it tells us how to get greater mask compliance and (2) explains why some people are not only being non-compliant, but also, irrationally, aggressively, and violently non-compliant.

Examples of Anti-Masker Stupidity

Violence against Line Workers Enforcing Company Policy

A teenager working at a children’s park was punched in the face for trying to enforce the park’s mask rule. Yeah, we’re standing up to tyranny, today! TODAY! That’ll show that little wussy teenager to be a sheople to enforce the rules and policies of his employer without thinking about all the lives the rules and policies are saving! What the actual fuck? What does this kind of gratuitious stupidity actually accomplish? It’s a 17 year-old kid doing a job, how is this going to help change anything?

The answer is that it is not. It is just so much masturbatory self-gratification. In the few hours between assault and arrest, the perpetrators can strut around puffing out their chests like some kind of small-minded cock of the walk.

Air Rage Incidents

Air rage incidents have increased due to mask requirements. As airlines have moved to make masks mandatory those succumbing to the anti-mask beliefs have put us all at risk. Typically, after being seated on a flight, the anti-masker will remove their mask and refuse to put it on proudly boasting of their Constitutional rights forgetting that we all have the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness which being racked by a severe disease puts a serious damper on.

If the altercation takes place before the flight commences, the pilots frequently return to the gate, remove the anti-masker, and the flight resumes… late of course. But, everyone knows it is our Constitutional right to inconvenience everyone and even cause them to miss connecting flights as well as put their lives at risk. We have precedence, after all, with our Second Amendment rights. For it to be a true conservative Constitutional right fellow citizens have to die by the thousands to keep the tree of their individual liberty water with blood. Fuck if I understand it.

What does explain it, though?


Ambiguity is the mental state in which information is vague, undefined, or otherwise unclear to the perceiver. This information can be a term, a situation, or a concept. Things are ambiguous if there is more than one legitimate interpretation of it. And, there is the first problem that anti-maskers run into. Their beef with masks is not ambiguous. It is clear that masks will significantly help stop the spread of #COVID19, yet anti-maskers persist in denying this evidence.

Ambiguity occurs when the probabilistic outcome of a situation is unknown. In short, we are uncertain of the outcome of any given behavior or reaction that we have. We should recall the behavioral economics rule of thumb, people hate taking a risk unless it is to avoid a loss.

People fear looking stupid. We fear that we will be ostracized by the group if we make a wrong move. Group membership means survival; group expulsion means almost sure death. It is a deep-seated fear. Now that we live in super-large societies, we look to form in-groups with similar and like-minded individuals.

Not knowing how to react to ambiguous situation makes us all uncomfortable. To resolve that discomfort, we look to the people around us and how they’re reacting and do what they do. If you want to know more about this reaction, please follow the links to past blog posts.

Ambiguity Tolerance

Ambiguity tolerance is the quality of a personality to accept a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations. Tolerance of ambiguity has been correlated with a whole slew of desirable — at least from my point-of-view — qualities: increased creativity, decreased risk aversion, improved psychological resilience, open accepting lifestyles, acceptance of diversity. Wow, when you read that list, it sounds like a good liberal, doesn’t it?

Other studies have demonstrated the relationship between ambiguity tolerance and prosocial behavior or altruism. Prosocial behavior is the willingness to help others without the promise of a direct observable reward or incentive to do so.

Participants with higher levels of tolerance for ambiguity were more willing to “engage in costly prosocial behaviors.” This was true when they were given opportunities to cooperate and to trust. As you might expect, once you remove the ambiguity of the social situation, there is no correlation between ambiguity tolerance and prosocial behavior. Once you have some certainty towards the probabilistic outcome, you behave according. When there is uncertainty towards the probabilistic outcome, those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity are more likely to help others.

You know, that sounds like maskers, especially early in the pandemic when there was less evidence that wearing a mask would help. I don’t know for sure whether wearing a mask will help, but I’ll wear it just in case.

Ambiguity Intolerance

Ambiguity intolerance is the quality of a personality to experience a large amount of uncertainty in information and social situations as a threat. To feel threatened when it is not clear what the proper response is to a set of information. This concept was first introduced in The Authoritarian Personality literature in 1950.

Stop the servers and routers here! Get out! Does that mean that people who tend to the authoritarian personality are less tolerant of and more threatened by ambiguous situations? Why yes. Yes it does.

Well, no fucking wonder these anti-masker assholes are anti-masker assholes.

Apter and Desselles (2001) studied the relationship between ambiguity tolerance and a variety of activities. See if you can guess who would prefer what? Who would prefer…

  • playing safe as opposed to risky sports
  • endurance repetitive activities as opposed to explosive unique activities
  • more organized less casual lifestyles versus a more disorganized casual lifestyle
  • descriptions that had greater precision rather than less precise descriptions
  • less emotional and unpleasant words or more emotionally intense unpleasant words — who says fuck more?
  • a less acute sense of humor — whose funnier?
  • engaging a smaller variety of sexual practices rather than a multitude of positions and experiences?
  • using fewer drugs, less pornography (Are we sure? Have you seen those google search term research projects?) and drinking less rather than have a greater appetite for all three
  • and, more obsessional behavior.

If you thought that ambiguity intolerant people preferred the first option, then you’re right! And, don’t those people sound like the more conservative among us? Seriously, they do, right?

Implications of Ambiguity Reactions

Given that so much of our political behavior is guided by the politicians that we like versus any type of ideology or principles, it should not be surprising that we look to favored politicians and other leaders to guide our response to unknown and unfamiliar situations like the emergence of a deadly pandemic like #COVID19. If we still don’t know much about the disease as of this writing in August 2020, we sure as shit didn’t know much about it back in February 2020 when it became evident that we were going to have a problem. We were all left scrambling looking for guidance.

There wasn’t much by way of specific guidance because we didn’t know a lot. In a word, the situation was ambiguous. People with a low tolerance for ambiguity demanded definitive answers immediately. Anyone who was reliable and dealing with reality, told us that we didn’t have definitive answers, but we had general public health principles to guide us as we developed more information. You know the Anthony Faucis of the world. People who found that intolerable were driven to conspiracy theories and wild conjecture. And, those who sought to exploit the situation for their own personal gain but who lacked the executive functioning to think things through, just minimized the threat and attempted to manage perceptions using gaslighting techniques.

When we were in this ambiguous situation we looked to our political and scientific national leaderships. Democrats found people like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, and Barrack Obama who all said, let’s listen to the experts and follow the plan that the Obama administration put together. That’s what a lot of liberals did.

Repubes looked to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber who scratched his ass and embarked on a journey of trying to minimize any damage the pandemic would do to him which meant sowing chaos, gaslighting all who would listen, and refusing to take any responsibility.

Anti-maskers looked to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber and took his lead. Masks are bad. The virus is a hoax. It is just the flu. Dems are making much ado about nothing to damage the Ol’ Pussy Grabber.

Encouraging Mask Wearing

If you want to increase compliance with mask wearing, then you’ve got to wear a mask yourself and minimize your bitching about it. Then, you have to encourage — by finding common ground not by antagonizing; no body likes a nag — the people around you to wear masks. And, finally, we have to ostracize those who don’t wear masks. Shunning people from the group is the worst social punishment there is. When there’s an anti-masker on a plane, people openly and loudly complain that they are hurting everybody by making them late for connecting flights and putting everybody at increased risk. Those kinds of punishments work. No one wants to be the hated individual that everyone cheers when you exit the plane or store.

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Image Attribution

The image was found on Flickr. It was made by baralbion. It is licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

8 replies »

  1. One thing I learned both times in my school career that Statistics was the subject is that a large percentage of people have a poor understanding of probability (Just ask any theoretical physicist who tries to explain Quantum Theory.) One consequence of this is many being very bad at probabilistic prediction of outcomes, often taking a statement that a thing is likely or unlikely as a certainty that it will or will not happen. It also makes the operators of casinos very wealthy. So, making functional decisions based on probabilistic ambiguity does require a tolerance of the uncertainty and ability to change decisions and advice in view of new evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!
      Making probability judgments is really hard and we are not equipped to do it. The tolerance for ambiguity frequently occurs outside of our conscious awareness. If you’re trying to answer the question, “Should I wear a mask?” it is too difficult to think explicitly about the probability of it preventing the spread of #COVID19. Instead, you answer an easier question, “What does respected person X say?” For anti-maskers, they look to Trump who has clearly indicated that should not wear masks. For mask-wearers, we look to someone like Anthony Fauci and wear a mask. Part of the issue with anti-maskers is that early in the pandemic, masks were not recommended and then shortly after, they were. There was ambiguity with mask wearing and with many other aspects of the virus. The inability to tolerate that uncertainty causes people to seek something they can do or process.

      As a high school teacher, and being able to reflect on my own experience, teenagers are less able to tolerate ambiguity than they may be later in life. In part due to brain development. Otherwise it is up to personality. Personality traits tend to cluster. Interestingly, there is a cluster of authoritarian personality and ambiguity intolerance.

      The good news is that we’ve convinced most people to wear masks. We’re down to the hard core with the most authoritarian personality and greatest intolerance of ambiguity, which coincides with the hardcore Trump voter.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Then, there is the matter of “normality” and habit formation. Wearing a mask is becoming the default position and the verbally abusive or violent anti-masker seen as the antisocial a—hole. This morning, at the grocery store, waiting at the prescribed social distance at the checkout, I looked at the tape lines on the floor and wondered whether people will continue to distance in that distant future when those lines are removed. Which of the habits formed in this time will persist?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!
          We’ve had tremendous success with other public health interventions: seat belts, bicycle and motorcycle helmets, littering, and smoking in public places. It is quite possible that #COVID19 will be with us for a long time and these precautions will be necessary. It will probably become like HIV and AIDS and we need periodic reminders that we must take preventative measures.


          Liked by 1 person

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