Ambiguity is a feature of all our perceptual interactions with the world, and of all the languages – verbal and nonverbal – by which we represent or refer to it. Tolerance of ambiguity is also a personality variable with interesting correlations to other measures. Crossref??

Scientific discussions:

Wasow, T., Perfors, A., and Beaver, D. (2005). The puzzle of ambiguity. In C. O. Orgun and P. Sells (Eds), Morphology and the web of grammar: Essays in memory of Steven G. Lapointe (pp. 265-282). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications. (full text)

Argues for the importance of ambiguity as a common characteristic of natural (as opposed to formal) language. The paper distinguishes between ambiguity and vagueness, identifies distinct types of ambiguity, and suggests that the fact that language has not evolved to reduce ambiguity is evidence against the assumption that ambiguity impedes communication. It summarises various potential positive functions for ambiguity – as a memory-saving function, aiding communication between different speech communities, allowing different interpretations to be implied to different audiences – and consider the hypothesis that it is a byproduct of some other evolved feature of language (e.g. the tendency towards shorter morphemes). In conclusion, the authors take first steps towards an explicit model of language evolution, modelling the ambiguity-related changes to which simple ‘languages’ are subject in the presence of relevant linguistic and environmental parameters.


Piantadosi, S. T., Tily, H., and Gibson, E. (2012). The communicative function of ambiguity in language. Cognition, 122(3), 280-291. (full text)

Presents an information-theoretic argument that all efficient communication systems will be ambiguous, assuming the context is informative about meaning, because ambiguity allows information units to be re-used and so makes processing easier. Predictions from the theory – relating to homophony, polysemy, and ease of syllable processing – are tested (and supported) in English, German, and Dutch, and the paper concludes with reflections on the cost and avoidance of ambiguity.


Furnham, A., and Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, 4(9), 717-728. (full text)

Reviews findings on tolerance of ambiguity (TA) as a personality measure, distinguishing it from related concepts like uncertainty avoidance and (in)tolerance of uncertainty, and charting historical shifts in its definition (in relation to concepts like risk and decision-making), connotations (e.g. authoritarianism and prejudice), and research locus (from social to clinical psychology). The paper presents results on the correlations of TA and other factors from observational and a few experimental studies, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of various TA self-report measures and their dimensions (including situational factors like novelty, complexity, and insolubility; and personality traits like valuing diverse others, change, challenging perspectives, and unfamiliarity).


Mamassian, P. (2008). Ambiguities and conventions in the perception of visual art. Vision Research, 48(20), 2143-2153. (full text)

The ambiguities inherent to visual perception are often resolved thanks to prior constraints derived from the statistics of natural scenes. Visual art plays with this ambiguity through features like perspective, movement, and illumination and colour, and resolves them (or not) through conventions that either have origins directly in perceptual qualities or manifest interesting divergences from perceptual priors.


Cognitive humanities discussions:


Lenz, B. (2014). Narrative fiction, experience-taking, and progressive male standpoints. Mosaic, 47(3), 141-157. (paywall)

Argues (with reference to Carter’s The Passion of New Eve and Fowles’s The Magus) that certain narrative strategies (e.g. ambiguous narrative perspective, inconclusive endings) which increase complexity and ambiguity encourage responses on the spectrum from empathy to identification, while also deterring such ‘immersed’ responses and placing the onus on readers to engage in more independent processes of interrogation and sense-making.


Helms, N. R. (2012). Conceiving ambiguity: Dynamic mindreading in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Philosophy and Literature, 36(1), 122-135. (full text)

Combines theories of mindreading and conceptual blending in a temporally dynamic, simulation-based model of the processing of literary character that takes into account ambiguity, surprise, and dramatic shifts in understanding, and their connections with perception, empathic imagination, and social knowledge. Mindreading is conceived as a blend of three input spaces (mental representation of the target, homeostatic representation of oneself, and theoretical knowledge of the other), and the paper discusses the limits of ambiguity in the social context (of staged character) as opposed to the textual one.