Ten years ago, Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of Technology said;
"...ambiguity is the feeling of discomfort you get from knowing there is something you don't know and wish you did."
In one study, subjects were given the choice between betting money on the chances of drawing a red card from a "risky" deck which had 20 red and 20 black cards, (an even chance of winning) and making the same bet with an "ambiguous" deck where the color composition of the cards was unknown. In most cases, the subjects chose to make the risky bet. Logically, both bets would have been equally good because in both cases, the chance of pulling a red card on the first draw was the same as drawing a black card.
Brain scans revealed that ambiguous wagers were often accompanied by activation of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, two areas of the brain which are involved in the processing of emotion. In particular, activity in the amygdala has been found to be closely associated with fear.
According to Cramer, a correlation between aversion to ambiguous decisions and activation of emotional parts of the brain makes sense from an evolutionary point of view; "Freezing in the face of danger is an old, emotional response which probably was evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral past."
In the modern human brain, this translates into a reluctance to bet for or against an event if information is lacking. This is easily seen in the way scientists and engineers initially approach problems; research. In Design Thinking this is called the Deep Dive.
Another key concept of Design Thinking is tolerance of ambiguity, overcoming fear and approaching problems like a curious novice. Acceptance and mastery of this idea can be a challenge for some people.
Ambiguity tolerance–intolerance is a psychological construct which describes the relationship that individuals have with ambiguous stimuli or events. People may view these stimuli as positive, neutral or threating. Ambiguity Intolerance manifests itself in different aspects personality as well as developmental and social psychology.
In 1965, Bochner categorized some primary and secondary attributes of individuals who are intolerant to ambiguity;
- Need for categorization
- Need for certainty
- Inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person
- Acceptance of attitude statements representing a white-black view of life
- A preference for familiar over unfamiliar
- Rejection of the unusual or different
- Resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli
- Early selection and maintenance of one solution in an ambiguous situation
- Premature closure
- Closed minded
- Ethnically prejudiced
Comparing these with the traits associated with creativity; fluid, flexible thinking, comfort with ambiguity, patience, willingness to invert ideas and concepts and challenging the status quo, its easy to see why being Un-creative is on the list.
If there was a way to measure someone's aversion to ambiguity, how might that improve problem solving skills in yourself or your team?