Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/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.
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).
"[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).
|Greece||112||Costa Rica||86||Austria||70||Thailand||64||Australia||51||Hong Kong||29|
|Malta||96||South Korea||85||Egypt||68||Iran||59||South Africa||49||Singapore||8|
|El Salvador||94||Hungary||82||Lebanon||68||Ghana||54||United States||46|
|Japan||92||Israel||81||Saudi Arabia||68||Sierra Leone||54||India||40|
|Surinam||92||Colombia||80||United Arab Emirates||68||Netherlands||53||Malaysia||36|
High vs lowEdit
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). 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. 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, 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.
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.
Role of religionEdit
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.
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 structureRoman Catholicism is the prevailing religion, are typically ranked higher in the UAI . This Christian denomination has considerably more rules and norms when compared to Protestantism which is more prevalent in moderate-ranking countries (Hofstede, 2001).. For instance, countries where
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. 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.
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. 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.
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).
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. This is largely due to the fact that teachers and students are more comfortable with ambiguous situations (Schmitz & Weber 2014).
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).
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 lawEdit
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).
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.
- Ambiguity aversion (Wikipedia)
- Cultural dimensions theory (Wikipedia)
- Risk-as-feelings (Book chapter, 2022)
- Uncertainty avoidance (Wikipedia)
- Uncertainty tolerance (Book chapter, 2021)
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- Geert Hofstede (Website)
- Geert Hofstede's video explanation of UA (YouTube)