Ambivalence is an experience of having thoughts and or emotions that are positive and negative valence toward someone or something. People may have “mixed feelings” or experiencing uncertainty or indecisiveness concerning something. The expressions “cold feet” and “sitting on the fence” are often used to describe the feeling of ambivalence.
Most likely we experience ambivalence in our own lives on a daily basis! As you drive home from work feeling tired, do you order takeout or take the time to cook yourself a well-rounded, healthy dinner? You are trying to stick to that diet, so you’re pulled to cook dinner. And, at the same time, you really want to just order pizza and make it easy! That is ambivalence in action, on a smaller scale. If you blow that up, it can look like trying to decide between having a drink and feeling relaxed after work, or having to work even more at the end of the day in order to avoid that drink (and feel good about keeping your goals). By acknowledging the normalcy of ambivalence one may be less frustrated by it and in turn communicate more effectively in the face of it.
Social psychologist Christian Wheeler, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Taly Reich, a professor at Yale School of Management, really were curious to understand what it takes for us to purposefully embrace ambivalence, an attitude we’re naturally inclined to regard as aversive.
After a few research projects, Wheeler and Reich came to the conclusion that people create ambivalence to protect their feelings when they are uncertain. This can easily be compared to the way people sometimes drink heavily, procrastinating, or putting in minimal effort — with the subconscious purpose of saving face if they don’t succeed.
One of their studies asked students who were nearing college graduation, and who had interviewed for jobs, to name the company and title of the job they most wanted. Then they completed a survey that asked how likely they thought it was they would get an offer and their attitude toward it. Once they were notified about job offers, the students completed a second questionnaire that measured how good they felt about themselves given the outcome.
“This was real life, so we couldn’t manipulate whether or not these students got the jobs, but we found the people most uncertain about their chances of getting a job offer also had the most ambivalence about it,” says Wheeler. “But that ambivalence also hurt their view of themselves when they got the job they wanted.”
Wheeler and Reich were surprised to discover that ambivalence could make the things we want less desirable once we get them. “It’s a little like an insurance policy,” Wheeler says. “It’s good to have when you need it, but there’s a cost. You generate these feelings toward something and it changes your view of yourself and the outcome.”
“Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation– the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up