Embracing the grey zone

July 10, 2016

Do you think there is always a clear right and wrong way to do things? 


Do you wait to have all the information before making a decision? 


Do you prefer tackling small, simple problems rather than large and complicated ones? 


If you answered 'Yes' to any of the questions above, chances are, you have a trait that psychologists refer to as "Low Tolerance for Ambiguity”.


Psychologists and Management Scientists have developed a number of questionnaires designed to measure people’s natural level of ambiguity tolerance.


People that score low on these measure are described as having a tendency to resort to black-and-white solutions, and characterised by rapid and overconfident judgement, often at the neglect of reality. At the other end of the scale, people perceive ambiguous situations as desirable, challenging and interesting, usually by individuals who show both sensation-seeking and risk-taking behaviour.


Researchers have found that people with high levels of ambiguity tolerance also tend to…

  • Have greater life satisfaction

  • More positive emotion

  • Feel less threatened by the environment or others

  • Experience less anxiety

  • Be more entrepreneurial

  • Be rated on high on managerial performance

  • Take more risks

  • Have greater self confidence

  • Have higher openness to new experiences

  • And more

Recently, The Science of Innovation Lab embarked on a new research project with innovation consultancy, ‘How to Impact (HTI)’. The purpose of this research project is to understand the relationship between ambiguity tolerance and innovation. HTI have a long track record of helping large organisations successfully grow their business through the application of design thinking principles. But over the years, they have observed a resistance to innovation amongst people who seem to be averse to uncertainty and ambiguous situations. At the Science of Innovation lab, we are investigating the link between tolerance for ambiguity and innovation using the tools of Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Management Science.


Some of the research questions we’re attempting to answer include…

  • How do we objectively measure ambiguity tolerance?

  • What is the optimum level of ambiguity tolerance?

  • How exactly does ambiguity tolerance influence the innovation process?

  • How do we train people to be more tolerant of ambiguity?

  • How do we create an organisational culture that embraces ambiguity?

We are excited to see what we’ll uncover during this process. If you’re interested in either participating in the research, please contact me at joel.davies@unsw.edu.au. If you’d just want to stay updated on how it unfolds, please subscribe to our newsletter.








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Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia

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