Uncertainty is pervasive to human life throughout space and time. It is present in daily life situations (is it going to rain today?), existential ones (professional and personal decisions), and our relationships with others (loved ones’ illnesses), the world (uncertainty about unemployment during an economic crisis), and nature (fear of natural disasters in a geographical area prone to it). Consequently, the way people cope with uncertainty and uncertain events is of substantial importance. Research in psychology concerning uncertainty began with experimental conditions by authors such as Epstein and Roupenian (1970) and Averill, Olbrich, and Lazarus (1972), exploring its relationship with stress and anxiety. Monat, Averill, and Lazarus (1972) defined uncertainty as the period of anticipation, before confronting a potentially threatening event (or one perceived as such). In these conditions, levels of stress would vary according to people’s efforts to assess and respond toward the event. Later, the concept of intolerance of uncertainty (IU) was defined as the way people understand and process information in situations that can be characterized as uncertain and how they respond with a set of cognitive, emotional and behavioral reactions (Freeston, Rhéaume, Letarte, Dugas, & Ladouceur, 1994).
In this research context, two concepts were used interchangeably for decades (Grenier, Barrette, & Ladouceur, 2005): intolerance of ambiguity (IA) (Frenkel-Brunswik, 1948) and the previously mentioned IU. Some interpretations defined IA as a tendency that individuals may demonstrate to interpret ambiguous situations as a threat and source of discomfort (Kirton, 1981; Majid & Pragasam, 1997; McLain, 1993). According to Bhushan and Amal (1986), ambiguous situations involve novelty, complexity, unpredictability, and uncertainty and people may respond to these situations with a set of reactions: cognitive (rigidity), emotional (discomfort, disapproval, rage or anxiety), and behavioral (rejection or withdrawal). Grenier et al. (2005) analyzed the development of the concept of IU throughout time, highlighting different definitions and how the first definitions of IU were very similar to the ones of IA (Freeston et al., 1994). However, Dugas et al.’ (2005) definition clearly reflects an emotional state that is oriented toward the future, which will allow its distinction from IA, directed to situations of ambiguity that take place in the present (Grenier et al., 2005). More recently, Carleton (2016b) defines IU as “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty” (p. 31). Based on contemporary models involving uncertainty and on research results, Carleton (2012, 2016a, 2016b), proposes that fear of the unknown (defined as a propensity to experience fear caused by the absence of information) may be the fundamental fear from which all fears arise, as well as higher order constructs, such as anxiety sensitivity, which confirms the importance of uncertainty to psychological well-being.
Early results on IU pointed out this construct as having a unique contribution as a predictor of the development of excessive worry (Dugas, Freeston & Ladoucer, 1997; Freeston et al., 1994), as a predictor of worry in daily life, with a lower contribution to worry/generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) than negative metacognitions (Thielsch, Andor, & Ehring, 2015a; Thielsch, Andor, & Ehring, 2015b), presenting a strong association with feelings of worry that could not be explained by other related factors, such as anxiety or depression (Buhr & Dugas, 2002), as well as processes as perfectionism and perceived control (Buhr & Dugas, 2006). Results on the combined effects of fear of anxiety and IU on worry, demonstrated this fear increases in association with IU, enhancing also the levels of worry (Buhr & Dugas, 2009). Various studies demonstrated that people diagnosed with GAD were more intolerant to uncertainty than moderate worriers and individuals with other anxiety disorders (Ladouceur, Gosselin, & Dugas, 2000), which supported the notion of IU being characteristic of worry and GAD. However, further research suggested a relationship between IU and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Gentes & Ruscio, 2011; Holaway, Heimberg, & Coles, 2006; Jacoby, Fabricant, Leonard, Riemann, & Abramowitz, 2013) and social anxiety (Boelen & Reijntjes, 2009; Carleton, Collimore, & Asmundson, 2010; Teale Sapach, Carleton, Mulvogue, Weeks, & Heimberg, 2015), as well as other anxiety-related disorders, such as panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, health anxiety (Boelen, Reijntjes, & Smid, 2015; Carleton, Fetzner, Hackl, & McEvoy, 2013; Fetzner, Horswill, Boelen, & Carleton, 2013; Fetzner et al., 2014; Norton, 2005), but also depression (Hong & Cheung, 2015; McEvoy & Mahoney, 2011). Therefore, recent findings suggest IU is present across diagnostics (Carleton, 2012), which led Thibodeau et al. (2015) to develop scales measuring disorder-specific intolerance of uncertainty, based on the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS)—the DSIU.
For this study, the Uncertainty Response Scale (URS) (Greco & Roger, 2001) was chosen to explore individual differences in attitudes toward uncertainty and strategies of coping with uncertainty and not people’s degree of (in)tolerance. This study thus proposes to contribute to the assertion of validity of a psychological measurement scale for the assessment of coping strategies towards uncertainty. Building on research on (in)tolerance of uncertainty, (in)tolerance of ambiguity, and coping strategies, the URS assesses individual differences in coping strategies for uncertainty and to what extent uncertainty is perceived as stress inducing. It is composed of three dimensions: (1) emotional uncertainty as a maladaptive strategy of coping with uncertainty, as an emotional orientation to the problem (correlated with higher levels of neuroticism, reduced self-esteem, emotional rumination, and difficulties to emotionally disconnect before stress inducing situations); (2) cognitive uncertainty, representing coping strategies based on planning and control of uncertainty and so focused on the problem (correlated with tolerance of ambiguity and inversely correlated with social sensitivity, within neuroticism, and with impulsivity); and (3) desire for change, as a positive view of uncertainty and an enjoyment of change (correlated with extraversion, specifically with impulsivity). In its original studies, the scale was assessed through exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses demonstrating good internal consistency and overall psychometric qualities (Greco & Roger, 2001, 2003). Therefore, this scale allows an exploration of emotional coping strategies (that may or may not result in inhibitory behaviors), of cognitive coping strategies (that focus on preparing and planning for the future through a process of reduction of unknowns and, therefore, of reduction of uncertainty), and of a tendency to enjoy change and uncertainty, which could prove useful as another approach to understanding coping with uncertainty.
Through the concept of coping, it is intended to analyze people’s interpretation of uncertainty and the general strategies used to deal with it, not reducing them to a fixed set of resources but considering them as part of the process of giving meaning to uncertainty, considering the living circumstances that surround the individual. Therefore, the personal interpretation of a situation is considered as resulting from the psychological development of the individual and so these strategies may change along personal development (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Consequently, coping with a specific situation may entail avoidance, minimization, or acceptance of stress inducing conditions. In this sense, strategies focused on emotional features are used to diminish distress or increase it, allowing to transform the meaning given by the individual to the situation, and, thus, cope with it (as emotional uncertainty may); strategies focused on the problem are directed toward the environment and its transformation or to self-transformation to deal with the situation (as cognitive uncertainty may). Ultimately, we cannot blame the victim for failing to adapt since the main problem relies in the relationship/transaction between people and the social/environmental structures in which they live and that this relationship should be the real target of change (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
This paper will thus present results of the process of adaptation of the URS to Portuguese, assessing its factor structure, validity, and reliability through a thorough assessment of three subsamples from a non-clinical community sample of 1596 participants. Multi-group measurement invariance analysis will be assessed, as well as invariance across gender, sociocultural levels, and students versus active professionals (employed or unemployed). To do so, invariance will be tested hierarchically, according to common practice. So, configural invariance will mean the factor structure to be the same across the groups tested, that is, whether similar factors are measured; metric invariance refers to the similarity of factor loadings across groups, besides the previous level of invariance (which allows for comparison of regression slopes); scalar invariance, besides the previous levels of invariance, guarantees that intercepts (latent means) are equivalent across groups, and so factors can be compared; error variance invariance (same factor structure, factor loadings, and error variances), and, finally, structural invariance, which also includes equal factors’ covariance (Vandenberg & Lance, 2000). To the best of our knowledge, no study has ever tested multi-group invariance of the URS, as well as these variables’ invariance. These are particularly important analyses, considering measurement invariance across groups is vital to ensure comparability of scores and to ensure the test measures the same construct, with the same meaning, across groups or cultural variables, such as gender (Vandenberg & Lance, 2000).
So, to demonstrate this scale’s potential and validity, the differences between demographical groups (as indicative of social and economic circumstances) on their responses to URS’ dimensions will be explored, specifically: gender, sociocultural level, and students (from different levels, from technical training to post-graduate students) versus professional participants through multiple-group modeling. It is hypothesized that underprivileged/vulnerable social groups (women, lower sociocultural levels) may present maladaptive strategies to cope with uncertainty, specifically higher levels of emotional uncertainty and, possibly, lower levels of desire for change. In fact, there is evidence in sociological qualitative research that vulnerable social groups, due to increased strain living circumstances, tend to exhibit lower levels of control over uncertainty and may resort to self-defeating strategies to cope with it (Marris, 1996). In this sense, one may consider emotional strategies of coping with uncertainty, as defined in this scale, as self-defeating strategies. Therefore, the final objective of this study is to demonstrate the usefulness of the scale for analyzing coping strategies toward uncertainty, by exploring differences between groups that may adopt different strategies to cope with uncertainty.
Despite the fact that Greco and Roger (2001) only found an effect of gender on systolic blood pressure in a post-task period, women are expected to show higher levels of emotional uncertainty, as it was found in research that focused on similar concepts, with adolescents and adults (Dekkers, Jansen, Salemink, & Huizenga, 2017; Eaton et al., 2012; Koerner & Dugas, 2008), and we can assume they can report lower levels of desire for change, given it implies a positive view on uncertainty.
Accordingly, based on results that show that individuals from lower sociocultural levels are more likely to perceive an environmental threat (economic uncertainty, in these cases) as uncontrollable (Griskevicius et al., 2013; Griskevicius, Delton, Robertson, & Tybur, 2011), it is hypothesized that these groups may also demonstrate difficulties of coping with uncertainty. Furthermore, the authors conclude that this feeling of uncontrollability may lead people from lower sociocultural levels to resort to “fast strategies” (evolutionary strategies focused on reproductive efforts) that prove ultimately ineffective when facing social threats. Therefore, if these groups experience uncertainty as more uncontrollable, they may reveal higher levels of emotional coping and lower levels of desire for change. So, these strategies may be considered self-defeating strategies and, bearing in mind the use of the URS is here proposed to be able to explore differences in coping strategies as influenced by environmental circumstances, testing differences between sociocultural levels seeks to demonstrate its usefulness for exploring other social circumstances.
Since there is no evidence of differences of coping with uncertainty between students and professionals, no differences are expected between these groups. However, considering the added uncertainty that can be found in professional contexts and in the labor market, as well as its psychological effects (de Witte, Pienaar, & de Cuyper, 2016; Giunchi, Emanuel, Chambel, & Ghidlieri, 2016; Jesus et al., 2016; Martín-Artiles, Molina, & Carrasquer, 2016; Mauno, Cheng, & Lim, 2017; Obschonka & Silbereisen, 2015), it was decided to explore if there could be any differences between these two groups. On the other hand, university and technical/professional courses’ students may also feel an added strain of uncertainty, by anticipating the transition to the labor market, which would explain if no differences were found.
In brief, this study has the following aims: (1) to provide evidence for the validity and psychometric properties of the Portuguese version of the URS (testing it through Exploratory Factor Analysis, Confirmatory Factor Analysis, Reliability Assessment, and Multi-Group Invariance); (2) to demonstrate the capacity of the scale to differentiate groups regarding coping strategies toward uncertainty. In order to do so, invariance for gender, sociocultural level, and students versus professionals was tested. Group differences were assessed by comparing means through multi-group models, and it was hypothesized that (i) women may demonstrate higher levels of emotional coping and lower levels of desire for change; individuals from lower sociocultural groups may present higher levels of emotional coping and lower levels of desire for change. Regarding students and professionals, no hypothesis was formulated since there are no previous results in literature that would support for any specific differences. Data was collected online, through a cross-sectional design, resorting to a non-clinical community, convenience sample.