Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Uncertainty avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance:
What is uncertainty avoidance, why does it occur, and what are its consequences?



Uncertainty Avoidance (UA) describes the extent to which groups and individuals within a culture tolerate unpredictable or ambiguous situations. This term is often used to distinguish cultural and structural differences between nations across the globe (Abhay, 2012). However, there is little information regarding the reasons UA occurs or why there seems to be significant variation in avoidance behaviours between countries. Research largely suggests uncertainty avoidance seems to have a strong relationship with religion and individual coping styles. The consequences of UA fundamentally shape national and cultural structures such as business, politics, law, and education.

Focus questions:

  • What is uncertainty avoidance?
  • What is the relationship between uncertainty avoidance and the prominence of religion?
  • How does uncertainty avoidance affect societal structures?
  • What is the relationship between uncertainty avoidance and personal motivations?



In 1980, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede introduced his cultural dimension theory which listed 'uncertainty avoidance' as one of the four (now six) cultural dimensions developed to investigate the effect of culture on the values and behaviours of its members. This framework is further used to measure and compare the difference between cultures based on these six criteria. The cultural dimensions theory was intended to construct a framework that could compare cultures based on standardised rankings. Figure 1 shows how select countries can be compared across all six dimensions. It shows that none of these dimensions are particularly related to each other and are evaluated irrespective of the other five dimensions (Hofstede, 1983).

Figure 1. Bar graph comparing 4 nations on the measures of Hofstede's 6 cultural dimensions.

"[uncertainty avoidance is] the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity and try to avoid these situations" - Geert Hofstede



To compare the relative uncertainty avoidance behaviours of each country, Geert Hofstede developed the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI). Based on characteristics and behavioural tendencies, countries are placed on a spectrum from 0 (low UA) to 120 (high UA). The rankings of the countries measured by Geert Hofstede are displayed in table 1. These rankings are often used in business and geopolitics to improve negotiation outcomes and diplomatic relations. They can also explain domestic laws and behavioural motivations (Abhay, 2012).



There are some criticisms of the cultural dimensions theory, namely the tendency for researchers to use ‘nation’ and ‘culture’ interchangeably. Some critics have noted the fact that most countries have some degree of multiculturalism. Different regions within Brazil have even been shown to exhibit differences in business performance and motivation. The theory also lacks an assessment of the intercultural interactions that occur. Although these measures can help inform different parties of their counterparts’ values and behaviours, it does not explicitly explore these interactions (Hartmann, 2014). Uncertainty avoidance has also been criticised for being too broad to allow meaningful interpretation and is predicated on the assumption that "national cultures are extremely stable over time" Schmitz & Weber, 2014).

Countries ranking on the UAI (Mockaitis, 2002)
Country/region Index Country/region Index Country/region Index Country/region Index Country/region Index Country/region Index
Greece 112 Costa Rica 86 Austria 70 Thailand 64 Australia 51 Hong Kong 29
Portugal 104 France 86 Pakistan 70 Estonia 60 Slovakia 51 Sweden 29
Guatemala 101 Panama 86 Luxembourg 70 Bangladesh 60 Norway 50 Denmark 23
Uruguay 100 Spain 86 Taiwan 69 Finland 59 New Zealand 49 Jamaica 13
Malta 96 South Korea 85 Egypt 68 Iran 59 South Africa 49 Singapore 8
Russia 95 Turkey 85 Iraq 68 Switzerland 58 Indonesia 48
Belgium 94 Bulgaria 85 Kuwait 68 Trinidad 55 Canada 48
El Salvador 94 Hungary 82 Lebanon 68 Ghana 54 United States 46
Poland 93 Mexico 82 Libya 68 Nigeria 54 Philippines 44
Japan 92 Israel 81 Saudi Arabia 68 Sierra Leone 54 India 40
Surinam 92 Colombia 80 United Arab Emirates 68 Netherlands 53 Malaysia 36
Romania 90 Brazil 76 Morocco 68 Ethiopia 52 Ireland 35
Peru 87 Venezuela 76 Ecuador 67 Kenya 52 Great Britain 35
Argentina 86 Italy 75 Lithuania 67 Tanzania 52 China 30
Chile 86 Czech Republic 74 Germany 65 Zambia 52 Vietnam 30

High vs low


Countries that rank highly on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index use standard practices to develop measures that will reduce the occurrence of uncertainties or avoid them entirely. Whereas countries with a low UAI are generally comfortable with uncertainty and engage in unconventional practices (Shah, 2012)[grammar?]. There also appears to be a difference in implicit motivational styles between low- and high-ranking nations. High-ranking countries are more likely to adopt a fear of failure as their achievement motivation. Their anxieties are likely a consequence of their anticipation of negative goal attainment. Whereas in low-ranking nations, self-efficacy is generally much higher due to a ‘hope for success’ motivational style (Wennberg et al., 2013).



High levels of uncertainty avoidance are usually characterised by rigid social structures. These nations will feel more comfortable with more rules and regulations as well as more prominent cultural norms. In many of these cultures, citizens are expected to always carry a means of identification (driver’s license). Tradition is also highly valued as it offers a sense of familiarity. Likewise, individuals are less likely to leave their current workplace. Individuals in these cultures also experience higher stress, neuroticism and emotionality and receive lower scores on subjective well-being criteria (Hofstede, 1983).

Emphasis is also placed on safety, likely due to the uncertainty regarding health outcomes. However, instances of alcohol abuse seem to be higher in avoiding cultures[factual?]. This is likely due to uncertainty-related anxiety, which is an established antecedent in alcohol abuse (Oglesby et al., 2014). Avoiding cultures also value expertise, [grammar?] this is evident by the greater number of doctors but a reduced number of nurses when compared to other nations (Schmitz & Weber, 2014). People in these cultures tend to perceive high levels of corruption in wealthy countries, whether it be their own or another (Hofstede, 2011).

Hofstede also distinguishes between uncertainty avoidance and risk aversion. Nations that are high in the UAI will not necessarily be highly risk aversive. This is because UA refers to the anxiety regarding ambiguity whereas risk aversion relates to the known consequences.

Case study

If nations are highly aversive to uncertainties (especially related to death) and by extension a lack of control. Would it be expected that they drive slower?

Contrary to what many might expect, uncertainty-avoiding societies actually tend to drive faster on roads and speed limits in these countries are usually higher on average. Geert Hofstede explains that this is ecause people are generally aware of the risks involved in driving at higher speeds. Therefore, the subject does not involve the avoidance of uncertainty but rather the avoidance of known risks. He also attributes this behaviour in high UAI countries to a sense of urgency and stress that is an outcome of high emotionality. He also posits that people may drive faster to avoid uncertainties by spending less time on the road (Schmitz & Weber, 2014).

Countries that score low on the UAI are also referred to as ‘uncertainty accepting’. These countries mostly experience converse characteristics to those discussed above. They are relaxed in new situations and are content with unresolved problems. This is especially accurate for questions that cannot be definitively answered such as life after death. Structural and technological change also occurs more rapidly. This tendency towards innovation is likely due to their ‘hope for success’ and are therefore more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. They tend to shop for products that are convenient rather than those that have been rigorously tested or are considered ‘clean’. Contrary to high UA nations, these cultures generally believe aggression and emotion should be controlled (Bergeron & Schneider, 2005). They also tend to be more tolerant of behaviours and ideas that are considered deviant by standard norms (Hofstede, 2011).



There are also many countries that have moderate scores on the UAI which indicates they have a reasonable balance between avoiding and accepting behaviours. Little research has been conducted that explores the differences across moderate nations.



1 Greg has had the same job for 15 years and does not like to take risks. Greg is most likely in a ___ ranking culture:


2 Nation A requires people to carry identification cards at all times and has considerably more doctors but fewer nurses when compared to other countries. Nation A is an example of a ___ ranking country:


Role of religion

Figure 2. Prevailing religions across the world

Throughout history, cultures have turned to their respective religions to relieve the anxieties they have regarding the questions of our origins, life's meaning, and death. Research largely suggests that nations ranked high in uncertainty avoidance seem to have a stronger dependence on religion for improved well-being outcomes.

Religious structure


Nations with the highest levels of uncertainty avoidance have the strongest relationships between faith and psychological well-being. This is because cultures that have low levels of anxiety regarding uncertainty do not require the same level of relief (Kogan et al., 2013). Countries with high uncertainty avoidance also seem to prefer religions that provide a more rigid structure[factual?]. For instance, countries where Roman Catholicism is the prevailing religion, are typically ranked higher in the UAI[factual?]. This Christian denomination has considerably more rules and norms when compared to Protestantism which is more prevalent in moderate-ranking countries (Hofstede, 2001).

Strictness largely depends on the churches and nations themselves. However, the major 3 monotheistic religions tend to be more rigid when compared to their poly and non-theistic counterparts (Kirsch, 2005). The theory of UA demonstrates that populations will likely turn to religious doctrine as a source of comfort. Groups with relatively high anxiety regarding unanswerable questions such as life’s purpose or the spiritual experience after death will be especially drawn to religions with more guidelines, rules, and structures.

"Monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god." - Jonathan Kirsch

When compared with table 1, figure 2 shows that many of the high-ranking countries on the UAI are also largely catholic and Islamic. Whereas countries ranking low are more likely to be Buddhist and Hindu[grammar?]. Protestantism also comprises many of the moderate nations. Van den Bos et al. (2006) also found highly religious individuals with higher levels of UA tend to react more strongly to anti-religious statements. These individuals also tend to view uncertainty as ‘emotionally threatening’. Studies also show that high-ranking countries will have a greater prevalence of aggressive fundamentalism and religious prejudice (Kossowska & Sekerdej, 2015). Of course, there are many factors that contribute to the rigidity of a religion besides UA. The exact relationship between religious uptake and uncertainty avoidance also remains unexplored. There is no certainty whether UAI ranks influence the prevalence of religions with rigid structures or vice versa. It is clear, however, that some correlation exists.

Changing landscapes


Modernisation and globalisation have caused significant shifts in culture and systems of belief. People in predominantly Christian countries seem to be migrating to atheism and non-theistic religions. This effect is often attributed to rapid innovations in technology and science (Netland & Yandell, 2009). Evidence also suggests monotheistic religions are becoming less rigid. Increased flexibility in strict religions tends to be beneficial for the transmission of faith if fundamental beliefs are maintained. Though, there is also a risk of intergenerational conflict[grammar?]. If younger generations adopt more flexible belief systems without their parents, there is an increased likelihood for them to disassociate from religious institutions (Dollahite et al., 2019).

Despite the well-established links between UA and faith, there is currently little research that explores the effects that shifts in religious uptake have on uncertainty avoidance behaviours. Again, this points to the major issue that no causal relationship has been established between UA and religious uptake. This also brings into question the possible fluidity of UAI scores. There is yet to be a reassessment of the rankings originally constructed by Geert Hofstede. And it would be reasonable to assume modern globalisation which is affecting the popularity of religion, would likely also affect UAI scores. Particularly, multiculturalism would mean a variety of uncertainty avoiding and tolerating individuals would exist in any given population.

Personality influences


A nation’s UA is largely informed by the characteristics of most individuals within the population. However, the uncertainty avoidance behaviours of individuals are likely also influenced by national structures such as educational styles. Sorrentino et al. (2008) suggest certain well-being outcomes are dependent on whether an individual’s coping style matches the dominant style in their culture. If an individual’s uncertainty orientation matches that of the majority in their country, then they will generally experience more active emotions. They also tend to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions. This indicates an uncertainty orientation may not necessarily be a negative trait. However, some research suggests that an avoidant coping style can result in increased uncertainty and in effect, increased anxiety. Therefore, well-being outcomes for uncertainty orientation depends on that of the population. Whereas avoidant coping styles seem to have negative consequences regardless (Dattilo et al., 2021)[grammar?].

Social structures


[Provide more detail]



Schools in high UA countries tend to have more structured learning and there is a general perception that teachers have all the answers. Whereas low UA countries offer a more open approach to learning[grammar?]. This is largely due to the fact that teachers and students are more comfortable with ambiguous situations (Schmitz & Weber 2014).

Case study

How to implement innovative methods of learning?

Researchers have observed a reduced uptake of web-based learning in uncertainty-avoiding countries. This innovative form of delivery has proven to be an effective mode of learning that offers ease of access to a variety of sources. However, due to the lack of knowledge and experience with web-based tools, educators in high UA countries maintain traditional teaching methods. To counter this effect, educators might be encouraged to engage in introductory programs to increase self-efficacy and reduce uncertainty with web-based learning (Sánchez-Franco et al., 2009).



Wennberg, Pathak & Autio (2013) identified uncertainty avoidance as a prominent mediator for the relationship between the ‘fear of failure’ motivational style and reduced instances of entrepreneurialism. They show that high uncertainty avoidance countries are less likely to adopt entrepreneurialism because of the inherent risks and unpredictability. This also supports the notion that individuals in high UA nations are more likely to use ‘fear of failure’ to motivate their actions. A geographical breakdown of unicorn companies has also been produced by CB insights which indicates high UA countries have significantly fewer unicorn start-up companies than nations such as China which has 20% of the listed companies (CB insights, 2021). This supports the idea that uncertainty avoidance significantly affects entrepreneurial behaviours.

Research also suggests that uncertainty avoidance negatively moderates the relationship between Virtual Social Networks (VSN) diffusion, human capital, and infrastructure. This VSN model is based on Roger’s diffusion of innovations theory. Diffusion is mostly reduced in UA countries due to strict laws, religious doctrine, adherence to tradition, and security measures. They also tend to feel threatened by the exchange of personal information in internet-based communication (Krishnam, 2014). Similarly, consumers in high UA countries are less likely to engage in online shopping due to unknown financial risks and a lack of understanding of the online platform (Al Kailani & Kumar, 2011).

Case study

What should companies consider when choosing where to conduct business?

One important feature of uncertainty avoidance is familiarity with the branded products individuals consume. There is a positive relationship between uncertainty avoidance and Product Uncertainty (PU). Products that have higher PU are not likely to be bought in high UA countries. Sellers of these products would benefit more by focusing their attention on low UA countries (Anne Lee et al., 2007).

Politics and law


High UA countries will likely have more specific rules and regulations. Individuals in these populations also have a weaker interest in their political system. This makes sense considering individuals will not want to engage in topics with unknown outcomes such as geopolitical relations. These governments also tend to be more conservative due to the desire for tradition. Legislation in high UA countries is also more likely to be influenced by their fear of the unknown. Typically, these countries will have stricter immigration policies due to the increased likelihood of xenophobia and anxiety regarding immigration (Stewart et al., 2019).

Climate change


Although climate change inaction is a multi-faceted problem, uncertainty avoidance is shown to be partially responsible for inaction at the individual, organizational, and institutional levels. The future outcomes of climate change are generally known, however, there is a level of uncertainty involved. Since the consequences are not immediately experienced, companies in high UA countries are less likely to act. They will often point to the lack of information regarding the likelihood these outcomes will occur as justification. However, this does not diminish the involvement of other causes of climate inaction such as short-termism and the level of a nation’s development (Slawinski et al., 2017).

"Because of the inherent uncertainty regarding whether an event will actually occur at a future point in time, people are tempted to put off ‘‘bad things’’ with the hope that they will just go away" (Wade-Benzoni, 2008).



Hofstede’s measure of uncertainty avoidance describes the extent to which a culture or nation tolerates unknown situations. Countries that rank high on the UAI will generally have more rules and regulations. The exact cause of high or low rankings is yet to be fully explored. However, uncertainty avoidance seems to have a reciprocal relationship with the predominant coping styles of the population. These populations also tend to differ in the experience of ‘fear of failure’ and ‘hope for the future’ motivations. UA also has a strong relationship with the occurrence of religion. Religions that have rigid structures and answer many of the unknown questions will be desired in high UA cultures. Uncertainty avoidance is engrained in several other social structures such as politics, law, and commerce. It can be used to predict the expected behaviours within these fields and the appropriate features can be implemented to maximise benefits. However, there are several criticisms of uncertainty avoidance such as its existence as a stable ranking in a changing global landscape. Overall, more research is needed to better understand the causes of uncertainty avoidance and its relationship with social structures.

See also



Abhay, S. (2012). Uncertainty avoidance index and its cultural/country implications relating to consumer behavior. Journal of International Business Research, 11(1), 119–134.

Al Kailani, M., & Kumar, R. (2011). Investigating uncertainty avoidance and perceived risk for impacting internet buying: A study in three national cultures. International Journal of Business and Management, 6(5).

Anne Lee, J., Garbarino, E., & Lerman, D. (2007). How cultural differences in uncertainty avoidance affect product perceptions. International Marketing Review, 24(3), 330–349.

Bergeron, N., & Schneider, B. H. (2005). Explaining cross-national differences in peer-directed aggression: A quantitative synthesis. Aggressive Behavior, 31(2), 116 –137.

CB Insights. (2021, August 17). Here's the geographic breakdown of the top unicorn investors - and where in the world they're placing their bets. CB Insights Research.

Dattilo, T. M., Roberts, C. M., Fisher, R. S., Traino, K. A., Edwards, C. S., Pepper-Davis, M., Chaney, J. M., & Mullins, L. L. (2021). The role of avoidance coping and illness uncertainty in the relationship between transition readiness and health anxiety. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 59, 125–130.

Dollahite, D., Marks, L., Babcock, K., Barrow, B., & Rose, A. (2019). Beyond religious rigidities: Religious firmness and religious flexibility as complementary loyalties in Faith Transmission. Religions, 10(2), 111.

Hartmann, A. M. (2014). The theory of cultural dimensions. cross-cultural interaction, 285–306.

Hofstede, G. (1983). National cultures in four dimensions: A research-based theory of cultural differences among nations. International Studies of Management &Amp; Organization, 13(1–2), 46 –74.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage publications.

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

Kirsch, J. (2005). God against the gods: The history of the war between monotheism and polytheism. Penguin Compass.

Kogan, A., Sasaki, J., Zou, C., Kim, H., & Cheng, C. (2013). Uncertainty avoidance moderates the link between faith and subjective well-being around the world. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(3), 242–248.

Kossowska, M., & Sekerdej, M. (2015). Searching for certainty: Religious beliefs and intolerance toward value-violating groups. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 72–76.

Krishnan, S. (2014). Moderating effects of uncertainty avoidance on ICT infrastructure, human capital, and virtual social networks diffusion. Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode.

Mockaitis, A. I. (2002). The national cultural dimensions of Lithuania. Ekonomika, 59(1), 67–77.

Netland, H. A., & Yandell, K. E. (2009). Introduction. In Buddhism: A Christian exploration and appraisal (pp. Viii–Xii). essay, IVP Academic.

Oglesby, M. E., Albanese, B. J., Chavarria, J., & Schmidt, N. B. (2014). Intolerance of uncertainty in relation to motives for alcohol use. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 39(3), 356–365.

Sánchez-Franco, M. J., Martínez-López, F. J., & Martín-Velicia, F. A. (2009). Exploring the impact of individualism and uncertainty avoidance in web-based Electronic Learning: An empirical analysis in European higher education. Computers & Education, 52(3), 588–598.

Schmitz, L., & Weber, W. (2014). Are Hofstede's dimensions valid? A test for measurement invariance of uncertainty avoidance. interculture journal: Online-Zeitschrift für interkulturelle Studien, 13(22), 11–26.

Shah. (2012). Uncertainty avoidance index and its cultural/country implications relating to consumer behavior. Journal of International Business Research., 11(1).

Slawinski, N., Pinkse, J., Busch, T., & Banerjee, S. B. (2017). The role of short-termism and uncertainty avoidance in organizational inaction on climate change: A multi-level framework. Business & Society, 56(2), 253–282.

Sorrentino, R., Nezlek, J., Yasunaga, S., Kouhara, S., Otsubo, Y., & Shuper, P. (2008). Uncertainty orientation and affective experiences. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(2), 129–146.

Stewart, B. D., Gulzaib, F., & Morris, D. S. (2019). Bridging political divides: Perceived threat and uncertainty avoidance help explain the relationship between political ideology and immigrant attitudes within diverse intergroup contexts. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

van den Bos, K., van Ameijde, J., & van Gorp, H. (2006). On the psychology of religion: The role of personal uncertainty in religious worldview defense. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28(4), 333–341.

Wade-Benzoni, K. (2008). Maple trees and weeping willows: The role of time, uncertainty, and affinity in intergenerational decisions. Negotiation And Conflict Management Research, 1(3), 220–245.

Wennberg, K., Pathak, S., & Autio, E. (2013). How culture moulds the effects of self-efficacy and fear of failure on Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 25(9–10), 756–780.