Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty Avoidance

the extent to which members of a society tend to feel threatened by ambiguous and unknown situations

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance holds many implications related to cultural xenophobia, the strictness of rules and regulations, and the level of tolerance toward people’s differences. A culture is generally accepting of uncertainty if its people are open to change and new experiences. Conversely, a culture is generally avoiding of uncertainty if its people are hesitant or closed to these things.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in uncertainty accepting versus uncertainty avoiding cultures:

Uncertainty Accepting

  1. Uncertainty is novel and life should be taken as it comes
  2. Less stress and anxiety
  3. Emotions should be controlled
  4. Curious about differences
  5. Want fewer rules, rules may be broken in case of necessity
  6. De-regulation
  7. Innovations adopted more quickly
  8. Changing of jobs is more easily done
  9. Tolerance toward others

Uncertainty Avoiding

  1. Uncertainty is a threat that must be avoided
  2. More implied stress and anxiety
  3. Emotions may sometimes be vented
  4. Afraid of differences
  5. Need for rules, even if impractical
  6. Regulation
  7. Innovations are adopted slowly
  8. People stay in same job as long as possible
  9. Xenophobia

Some fascinating correlations occur between Uncertainty Accepting and Avoiding cultures: Accepting societies tend to have less alcoholism, fewer doctors, slower automobile drivers, more humor in advertising and a perception of the wealthy as less corrupt. Conversely, avoiding societies tend to have more alcoholism, more doctors, faster drivers, more authority figures in advertising, and a perception of the wealthy as being corrupt.

Hofstede measured this dimension by the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) on a scale of 1-100. There appears to be an oscillation in scores over time worldwide, with scores going up during periods of crisis/war and going down during periods of peace/stability.

Disrupt This!

As Hofstede’s observations were aimed at defining national-level sentiments, it may take some mental gymnastics to scale this down to a level that is relevant to design research. Small-scale communities encounter much more sub-cultural overlap than do nations, and so some aspects (for example xenophobia) may be less applicable. It will likely be more helpful to consider the levels of diversity and openness within small-scale communities. For example:

  • How easy is it for new members to join the group?
  • How diverse is the member group?
  • To what extent is membership regulated? Are there extensive rules that must be followed to maintain membership, or is simple geography or race the defining factor?
  • Do meeting places exist across a broad range of socially diverse “third places,” or do members meet in relatively few locations (such as members’ homes) or even a single location (such as a high school gymnasium or religious building)?

Determining these factors may help designers understand to what extent people would be open to the possibility of bold, new design ideas versus traditional methods.

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