Magic Mustang Tamer

Intolerance of Uncertainty: my reading

Each paper in the “My Reading” series is an interpretation of a scientific paper on a topic of interest to animal trainers. This paper is presented to understand the development and nuances of the constructs underlying disposition for fear and anxiety.

A review of the relationship between intolerance of uncertainty and threat appraisal in anxiety

READ — Date: 2 March 2020 Reason: research into new models of anxiety

CITATION: Milne, S., Lomax, C., & Freeston, M. H. (2019). A review of the relationship between intolerance of uncertainty and threat appraisal in anxiety. the Cognitive Behaviour Therapist12.

KEYWORDS: fear, threat appraisal, intolerance of uncertainty


METHOD/APPROACH: Review of extant literature.

SIGNIFICANCE: Traces the emergence of constructs underpinning or comprising the experience of anxiety. This article articulates the search for, disentanglement, and verification of these constructs.

KEY CONCEPTS: Threat appraisal is problematic when it over-estimates the probability and costs, while it under-estimates the ability to cope or escape from harm.

Anxiety=(appraisal of probability X appraisal of awfulness)/(potential to cope + potential to escape) This is Salkovskis Model.

The multiplicative nature of the interaction in the numerator reflects the idea that small increases or decreases in either term will lead to magnified results. The numerator collectively comprises the threat appraisal itself. The denominator is a buffering capacity.

The two significators for intolerance of uncertainty are 1) a strong desire for predictability, and 2) paralysis in the face of uncertainty.

There are 5 generally accepted processes involved in maladaptive control.

  • inflated costs and probability appraisals
  • increased attention and vigilance
  • deficient safety learning
  • behavioral and cognitive avoidance
  • heightened reactivity to threat

Cognitive Behavior Therapy normally tries to deal with anxiety by addressing the factors in the threat appraisal to get a more realistic appraisal of probability and cost.

The experience of anxiety can be described by a combination of several independent factors including self-sensitivity, distress tolerance, self-efficacy, idiosyncratic experience, and uncertainty intolerance. Science is working to disentangle and verify these constructs, which combine to form the dispositional characteristics to express and experience fear and anxiety.


  • Fear: motivates defensive responses to diminish itself. Fear is of specific anticipated harm.
  •  Anxiety: the apprehension of potential for harm without specific danger.
  • Threat appraisal: anticipatory interpretation of the probability and significance (cost) of future harm.
  • Intolerance of uncertainty: fear of the unknown, a dispositional trait resting on the idea that for intolerant individuals, uncertainty itself is aversive.


  • Is an animals’s response to novelty the same as to uncertainty?
  • If uncertainty is aversive, can we use it to motivate behavior?
  • How does lowering the probability of harm (removing the aversive) compare to decreasing the uncertainty?

4 thoughts on “Intolerance of Uncertainty: my reading


    Your third question above is interesting. I wonder how the observer would distinguish between the two cases in order to lower one and see the outcome?

  2. Tasha Smith

    If uncertainty is an identified aversive for a particular animal then wouldn’t it be equal to the aversive in the equation?

  3. Patricia Barlow-Irick Post author

    That is an EXCELLENT question! I assume that by “aversive in the equation”, you mean a tangible aversive and are contrasting it to the intangible “uncertainty”. Then I would expect some combination of how escape-able and potentially harmful the animal perceives the tangible aversive to factor into the balance. Think about how horses are said to run back to their barns when the barn is on fire. Are they avoiding uncertainty?

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