People more likely to trust, cooperate if they can tolerate ambiguity, study finds

June 12, 2018 by Gillian Kiley, Brown University
The study found that, in social situations, individuals who can accept that the odds of a desirable outcome are unknown are more likely to trust and cooperate with others. Credit: Mike Cohea

Can a new colleague be trusted with confidential information? Will she be a cooperative team player on a critical upcoming project? Assessing someone's motives or intentions, which are often hidden, is difficult, and gauging how to behave toward others involves weighing possible outcomes and personal consequences.

New research published in Nature Communications indicates that individuals who are tolerant of ambiguity—a kind of uncertainty in which the odds of an outcome are unknown—are more likely to cooperate with and trust other people.

Tolerance of ambiguity is distinct from tolerance of risk. With risk, the probability of each future outcome is known, said Oriel FeldmanHall, author of the study and an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University. The many unknowns inherent in social situations make them inherently ambiguous, and the study finds that attitudes toward ambiguity are a predictor of one's willingness to engage in potentially costly social behavior.

"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," FeldmanHall said. "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."

"Because we do not have full knowledge of others' feelings or intentions, it can be hard to figure out whether it is best to trust another person with money or information, for example, or cooperate with them when one's well-being is at stake," FeldmanHall said.

That incomplete knowledge, she said, means "social exchanges are rife with ambiguous—and not risky—uncertainty: we can't apply specific probabilities to how a social exchange might unfold when we don't have certainty about whether the person has trustworthy intentions."

In the study, FeldmanHall and her colleagues performed a series of experiments in which 200 volunteers (106 female and 94 male participants) first completed a solo gambling game to assess their risk and uncertainty tolerance. They then played social games in which they had to decide whether to cooperate with or trust other players. Cooperation potentially benefited both players, but cooperators risked being betrayed and losing out.

In one experiment, the results showed that ambiguity tolerance was positively correlated with the amount of cooperation. In a second study, the researchers found that those who could tolerate ambiguity chose to trust a partner even if they knew the person did not always behave in a trustworthy way in the past.

Overall, being able to tolerate ambiguity predicted greater prosocial behavior, which prioritizes the welfare of other people and not just one's own self-benefit. By contrast, there was no association between and social decision-making.

When subjects were allowed to gather information about others—through gossiping about, engaging with or observing another person, for instance—and reduce the amount of ambiguous uncertainty around their social choices, the link between ambiguity and willingness to disappeared, according to the study.

FeldmanHall said that the findings on the dimension of in social decision-making presents opportunities for further study.

"There are many questions this work made us think about, and we are currently conducting a number of experiments to explore this domain," FeldmanHall said. "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."

Explore further: Why do we trust, or not trust, strangers? The answer is Pavlovian

More information: Marc-Lluís Vives et al, Tolerance to ambiguous uncertainty predicts prosocial behavior, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04631-9

Related Stories

Why do we trust, or not trust, strangers? The answer is Pavlovian

January 29, 2018
Our trust in strangers is dependent on their resemblance to others we've previously known, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers. Its results show that strangers resembling past individuals known to be trustworthy ...

The great unknown—risk-taking behaviour in adolescents

January 19, 2017
Adolescents are more likely to ignore information that could prompt them to rethink risky decisions. This may explain why information campaigns on risky behaviors such as drug abuse tend to have only limited success. These ...

Are pain tolerance levels similar among groups of friends?

May 23, 2018
Are your friends very pain tolerant? Then it is likely that you are as well, provided you are a male. A recent study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain, along with an Editorial Comment by Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, published ...

Study: Tolerance for ambiguity explains adolescents' penchant for risky behaviors

October 1, 2012
It is widely believed that adolescents engage in risky behaviors because of an innate tolerance for risks, but a study by researchers at New York University, Yale's School of Medicine, and Fordham University has found this ...

Recommended for you

What social stress in monkeys can tell us about human health

December 11, 2018
Research in recent years has linked a person's physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. ...

Trying to get people to agree? Skip the French restaurant and go out for Chinese food

December 11, 2018
Here's a new negotiating tactic: enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid.

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
not rated yet Jun 13, 2018
The researchers created a situation fertile for cooperation. But maybe where ambiguity hides potential social predators it's the smart thing not to tolerate it
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Jun 14, 2018
Well Squirrel, that is the ambiguity of life. Isn't it? The only way you have to discover if someone can be trusted, is to trust them.

I think the hope is. That people who may be susceptible to committing predatory acts? If they are properly socialized, they can learn the self-awareness and self-discipline to control their own behavior to avoid harming others.

Is that not the purpose of forcing school children, to every day perform the rote salute to the flag with the pledge of allegiance and officially designated prayers?

That child parroting political slogans and theocratic jingles? Will thus be magically transformed into a 'Smooth Subject'. As an obedient consumer and submissive worshiper.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.