How Tolerance For Ambiguity Leads To Trust At Work

When a new recruit enters a team, it understandably takes time for that individual to gain the full trust of their new colleagues.  Mostly this is down to gaining an appreciation of their skills and talents, but it also requires an understanding of their motives and intentions.  These are especially difficult to gauge as they are so often hidden from view.

As such, it involves a subtle weighing of possible outcomes and consequences.  A new study, from researchers at Brown University, suggests that people who are tolerant of ambiguity do this more effectively, and are therefore more likely to trust and cooperate with others.

This tolerance of ambiguity allows us to be comfortable with the unknown qualities that are inevitable in so many social interactions, but especially those involving new people.

“If we consider how we go about navigating through our social worlds, we constantly need to figure out what other people are feeling and thinking,” the researchers say. “Even if someone tells us they are angry, they may not be telling us how angry they really are, or why they might be angry in the first place. In other words, we try to predict other people without ever having full access to their ‘hidden’ states.”

Diving into the unknown

This relative lack of knowledge renders most social exchanges rife with uncertainty that makes it impossible to say with any certainty how it will unfold.  The study saw a few hundred volunteers complete a solo gambling game to gauge their appetite for risk and tolerance for uncertainty.  This was then followed by social games in which they had to decide whether to cooperate with the other players.  The games followed familiar game theory rules in that cooperation often benefited both players, but betrayal could see them lose everything.

The results showed that there was a clear correlation between ambiguity tolerance and level of cooperation.  What’s more, those who could tolerate ambiguity often trusted their partner, even if they knew they hadn’t always been trustworthy in the past.

Such tolerance of ambiguity produced what the researchers refer to as prosocial behavior, which is when we prioritize the welfare of others over and above our own.  Interestingly, when people gained more knowledge about their peers, the impact of ambiguity tolerance largely vanished.  The authors believe their work provides a valuable basis to perform additional research.

“There are many questions this work made us think about, and we are currently conducting a number of experiments to explore this domain,” they say. “As one example, we are trying to understand whether situations that have ambiguously uncertain outcomes influence how readily an individual will turn to their peers for guidance on how to behave. The more uncertain the environment, the more people might conform.”