Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

This article needs rewriting to enhance its relevance to psychologists..
Please help to improve this page yourself if you can..

Ambiguity is the property of words, terms, notations and concepts (within a particular context) as being undefined, undefinable, or without an obvious definition and thus having an unclear meaning.

A word, phrase, sentence, or other communication is called “ambiguous” if it can be interpreted in more than one way. Ambiguity is distinct from vagueness, which arises when the boundaries of meaning are indistinct. Ambiguity is in contrast with definition, and typically refers to an unclear choice between standard definitions, as given by a dictionary, or else understood as common knowledge.

Linguistic forms

Lexical ambiguity arises when context is insufficient to determine the sense of a single word that has more than one meaning. For example, the word “bank” has several meanings, including “financial institution” and “edge of a river,” but if someone says “I deposited $100 in the bank,” the intended meaning is clear. More problematic are words whose senses express closely related concepts. “Good,” for example, can mean “useful” or “functional” (That’s a good hammer), “exemplary” (She’s a good student), “pleasing” (This is good soup), “moral” (He is a good person), and probably other similar things. “I have a good daughter” is not clear about which sense is intended. The various ways to apply prefixes and suffixes can also create ambiguity (“undeletable” can mean “possible to undelete” or “impossible to delete”).

Syntactic ambiguity arises when a sentence can be parsed in more than one way. “He ate the cookies on the couch,” for example, could mean that he ate those cookies which were on the couch (as opposed to those that were on the table), or it could mean that he was sitting on the couch when he ate the cookies. Spoken language can also contain such ambiguities, where there is more than one way to compose a set of sounds into words, for example “ice cream” and “I scream.” Such ambiguity is generally resolved based on the context. A mishearing of such based on incorrectly-resolved ambiguity is called a mondegreen.

Semantic ambiguity arises when a word or concept has an inherently diffuse meaning based on widespread or informal usage. This is often the case, for example, with idiomatic expressions whose definitions are rarely or never well-defined, and are presented in the context of a larger argument that invites a conclusion.

For example, “You could do with a new automobile. How about a test drive?” The clause “You could do with” presents a statement with such wide possible interpretation as to be essentially meaningless. Lexical ambiguity is contrasted with semantic ambiguity. The former represents a choice between a finite number of known and meaningful context-dependent interpretations. The latter represents a choice between any number of possible interpretations, none of which may have a standard agreed-upon meaning. This form of ambiguity is closely related to vagueness.

Psychology and Management

An increasing amount of research is concentrating on how people react and respond to ambiguous and uncertain situations. Much of this focuses on ambiguity tolerance. A number of correlations have been found between an individual’s reaction and tolerance to ambiguity and a range of factors.

Apter and Desselles (2001)[1] for example, found a strong correlation with such attributes and factors like a greater preference for safe as opposed to risk based sports, a preference for endurance type activities as opposed to explosive activities, a more organised and less casual lifestyle, greater care and precision in descriptions, a lower sensitivity to emotional and unpleasant words, a less acute sense of humour, engaging a smaller variety of sexual practices than their more risk comfortable colleagues, a lower likelihood of the use of drugs, pornography and drink, a greater likelihood of displaying obsessional behaviour.

In the field of leadership Wilkinson (2006) [2] found strong correlations between an individual leaders reaction to ambiguous situations and the Leadership modes they use, the type of creativity (Kirton (2003) [3] and how they relate to others. up mud 9


Philosophers (and other users of logic) spend a lot of time and effort searching for and removing ambiguity in arguments, because it can lead to incorrect conclusions and can be used to deliberately conceal bad arguments. For example, a politician might say “I oppose taxes which hinder economic growth.” Some will think he opposes taxes in general because they hinder economic growth; others will think he opposes only those taxes that he believes will hinder economic growth (although in writing, the correct insertion or omission of a comma after “taxes” removes ambiguity here - in addition, for the latter meaning, “that” is properly used in place of “which”). The politician hopes that each will interpret the statement in the way he wants, and both will think the politician is on his side. The logical fallacies of amphiboly and equivocation also rely on the use of ambiguous words and phrases.

In literature and rhetoric, on the other hand, ambiguity can be a useful tool. Groucho Marx’s classic joke depends on a grammatical ambiguity for its humor, for example: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas I’ll never know.” Ambiguity can also be used as a comic device through a genuine intention to confuse, such as Magic: The Gathering's Unhinged © Ambiguity, which makes puns with homophones, mispunctuation, and run-ons: “Whenever a player plays a spell that counters a spell that has been played[,] or a player plays a spell that comes into play with counters, that player may counter the next spell played[,] or put an additional counter on a permanent that has already been played, but not countered.” Songs and poetry often rely on ambiguous words for artistic effect, as in the song title “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (where “blue” can refer to the color, or to sadness).

In narrative, ambiguity can be introduced in several ways: motive, plot, character. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the latter type of ambiguity with notable effect in his novel The Great Gatsby.

Constructed language

Some languages have been created with the intention of avoiding ambiguity, especially lexical ambiguity. Lojban and Loglan are two related languages which have been created with this in mind. The languages can be both spoken and written. These languages are intended to provide a greater technical precision over natural languages, although historically, such attempts at language improvement have been criticized.


In music pieces or sections which confound expectations and may be or are interpreted simultaneously in different ways are ambiguous, such as some polytonality, polymeter, other ambiguous meters or rhythms, and ambiguous phrasing, or (Stein 2005, p.79) any aspect of music. The music of Africa is often purposely ambiguous. To quote Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1935, p.195), “Theorists are apt to vex themselves with vain efforts to remove uncertainty just where it has a high aesthetic value.”


  1. in Motivational Styles in Everyday life: A guide to reversal Theory. M.J. Apter (ed) (2001) APA Books
  2. Wilkinson, D.J. (2006) The Ambiguity Advantage: What great leaders are great at. New York Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. Kirton, M.J. (2003)Adaption-Innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change. Routledge.

See also

Informal fallacies
Special pleading | Red herring | Gambler's fallacy and its inverse
Fallacy of distribution (Composition | Division) | Begging the question | Many questions
Correlative-based fallacies:
False dilemma (Perfect solution) | Denying the correlative | Suppressed correlative
Deductive fallacies:
Accident | Converse accident
Inductive fallacies:
Hasty generalization | Overwhelming exception | Biased sample
False analogy | Misleading vividness | Conjunction fallacy
False precision | Slippery slope
Amphibology | Continuum fallacy | False attribution (Contextomy | Quoting out of context)
Equivocation (Loki's Wager | No true Scotsman)
Questionable cause:
Correlation does not imply causation | Post hoc | Regression fallacy
Texas sharpshooter | Circular cause and consequence | Wrong direction | Single cause
Other types of fallacy

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).