Tolerance for ambiguity among medical students: Implications for their selection, training and practice

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The practice of medicine has always been characterized by uncertainty. Yet, attempts to study tolerance for uncertainty in medicine have been few, and limited to its influence on specialty preferences and test-ordering behavior. In particular, studies have not investigated how the process of socialization into the medical profession affects tolerance for uncertainty. Based on the assumption that uncertainty and ambiguity are related concepts, a modified version of a tolerance for ambiguity scale was used to study Johns Hopkins medical students' (N = 386) tolerance for ambiguity (TFA) through 4 yr of medical school. In addition, using alcoholism as an example of a clinically ambiguous condition, the association between students' tolerance for ambiguity and their perceived role in diagnosing and treating alcoholism was also investigated. Results indicate that tolerance for ambiguity (1) does not change throughout medical school, (2) is lower among men, whites and students who are younger when they begin medical school, (3) is higher among prospective psychiatrists than surgeons, and (4) is lower among students who do not feel responsible for diagnosing and treating alcoholism. These findings suggest that tolerance for ambiguity may, indeed, affect practitioners' career choices and performance and that selection of medical students may be more important than medical training per se in influencing students' tolerance for ambiguity. If medical schools admitted students who possess a high tolerance for ambiguity, quality of care for ambiguous conditions might improve, imbalances in physician supply and practice patterns might be reduced, and the increasing ambiguity in medical practice might be better acknowledged and accepted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)619-624
Number of pages6
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1990


  • alcoholism
  • medical education
  • medical students' attitudes
  • professional socialization
  • specialty choice
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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