Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Measuring the ambiguity tolerance of medical students: a cross-sectional study from the first to sixth academic years

Anne Weissenstein1*, Sandra Ligges2, Britta Brouwer3, Bernhard Marschall4 and Hendrik Friederichs3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospital of Cologne, Kerpener Strasse 62, Cologne, 50937 Germany

2 Institute of Biostatistics and Clinical Research, University of Muenster, Schmeddingstraße 56, Muenster, 48149 Germany

3 Institute of Student affairs and Medical Education - IfAS, University of Muenster, Studienhospital, Malmedyweg 17-19, Muenster, 48149 Germany

4 Institute of Student affairs and Medical Education - IfAS, University of Muenster, Albert - Schweitzer - Campus 1/Gebäude A6, Muenster, 48149 Germany

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BMC Family Practice 2014, 15:6  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-15-6

Published: 9 January 2014



Tolerance of ambiguity, or the extent to which ambiguous situations are perceived as desirable, is an important component of the attitudes and behaviors of medical students. However, few studies have compared this trait across the years of medical school. General practitioners are considered to have a higher ambiguity tolerance than specialists. We compared ambiguity tolerance between general practitioners and medical students.


We designed a cross-sectional study to evaluate the ambiguity tolerance of 622 medical students in the first to sixth academic years. We compared this with the ambiguity tolerance of 30 general practitioners. We used the inventory for measuring ambiguity tolerance (IMA) developed by Reis (1997), which includes three measures of ambiguity tolerance: openness to new experiences, social conflicts, and perception of insoluble problems.


We obtained a total of 564 complete data sets (return rate 90.1%) from medical students and 29 questionnaires (return rate 96.7%) from general practitioners. In relation to the reference groups defined by Reis (1997), medical students had poor ambiguity tolerance on all three scales. No differences were found between those in the first and the sixth academic years, although we did observe gender-specific differences in ambiguity tolerance. We found no differences in ambiguity tolerance between general practitioners and medical students.


The ambiguity tolerance of the students that we assessed was below average, and appeared to be stable throughout the course of their studies. In contrast to our expectations, the general practitioners did not have a higher level of ambiguity tolerance than the students did.

Ambiguity tolerance; Medical students; General practitioners