Generally, we like our thoughts and feelings to be in in harmony with each other, and when our inner stars fail to align we look for ways to make them. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that when an individual senses an inconsistency between what he believes (smoking causes cancer) and what he does (smokes) he will find a way, however implausible, of resolving the discord (“I smoke to get in touch with my creativity”).
Ambivalence isn’t so much about the contradiction between behavior and attitude as the contradiction between attitudes. It’s the mental mess that exists before you have been forced to commit to a view. We can get along quite happily with it until the moment of a decision looms, at which point we employ one of three strategies to cope with the unpleasant, conflicted sensation. We procrastinate, putting off the moment of commitment, or we somehow persuade ourselves that we really do believe one side or another, even if doing so involves a degree of self-deception and distortion of the evidence, or most subtly, we displace our need for certainty to something else.
When Van Harreveld showed “snowy pictures”—obscurely drawn pictures that may or may not contain a hidden pattern or figure—to people who were experiencing ambivalence, he found that they were more likely than most to discern patterns, even when there weren’t any. They were also more likely to express a strong belief in God. Relationship experts have discerned a similar dynamic, called “splitting”: People experiencing a high degree of emotional ambivalence about their partner often cope by working up antipathy toward some unfortunate third party (mothers-in-law may be the innocent victims).
Ambivalence applies to matters of the heart just as much as it does to our beliefs. Jeff Larsen of the University of Tennessee has done a lot of work to demonstrate that people can feel mixed emotions, something that some of his fellow psychologists have found oddly hard to accept. He asked moviegoers about their mood before they went in to see Life Is Beautiful, a father-son bonding movie that’s also about the Holocaust. Most said they were feeling happy, while a few, perhaps those were being dragged to the theater by their partners, reported feeling sad. But on the way out, 44 percent reported feeling both happy and sad.
Larsen told me that the ability to experience emotional ambivalence is a function of maturity. After watching the Little Mermaid marry her prince but say goodbye to her father, most 11-year-old girls report feeling mixed emotions, but no 6-year-olds do. One young child dismissed the idea of mixed emotions with unimpeachable logic: “You can’t move your mouth up and down at the same time.”
Nowhere is our problem with ambivalence more evident than in contemporary political discourse, which ignores the possibility of ambivalence altogether. The stickiest and most divisive of today’s political issues are difficult not just because there are people on either side of the debate but because they divide individuals internally, bringing our core beliefs into conflict. But ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate: Our normal measuring instruments cannot detect it.
Politicians seek to be seen as strong and firm of view, while pollsters find ambivalence hard to detect among voters because it registers only as indifference on their five-point scales. Stephen Craig, a professor of political science at the University of Florida and the editor of a collection of essays on ambivalence, suspects that on an issue like abortion, people’s views are a lot less clear-cut than they seem. “A lot of folks have mixed feelings about it,” he told me. “That isn’t taken into account by politicians or pollsters.”
Democrats and Republicans present the public with a more ideologically differentiated choice than ever before, forcing voters to choose between polarized positions. But there’s surprisingly little evidence that the attitudes of voters have mirrored this divergence.
Issues on which voters appear to be deeply divided may involve more ambivalence than meets the eye. Take gay marriage. Many Americans who believed in the right of everyone to marry who they want were, until recently, against gay people doing so—a contradiction rich in ambivalence. Then, as it became clear which way society was moving, helped by statements from the White House, a tipping point was reached, and public opinion turned decisively in favor. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen opinions shift as quickly on any single issue,” says Craig. Rather than this being the result of people switching from one firmly held view to another, it seems more likely that we were witnessing a lot of ambivalence being resolved.
We live in a society in which opinions, options, and information are everywhere proliferating, and ambivalence is on the rise. Persuasive arguments are available on either side of nearly every choice. What should I think or feel about fast food, nuclear energy, or euthanasia? Which of these 15 brands of toothpaste do I prefer and why?
Yet because it goes largely unmeasured and undetected, ambivalence is undervalued. Uncertainty is interpreted as weakness, even though certainty takes us blundering into wars and financial crashes. Facebook turns our analogue emotions into binary oppositions: You either “like” something or you don’t. Management books valorize decisiveness; self-help books command us to be happy; politicians pitch to one side or the other. The ambivalents are trapped in a culture that prizes univalents.
If we are to find a way to break out of our current deadlocks, we need a little more respect for ambivalence. After all, an ambivalent sensibility is a creative one. Christina Ting Fong, professor of management at the University of Washington, induced ambivalence in a group of college students by getting them to write about complex emotional experiences from their lives. She then had them complete a commonly used test of creativity that involves making connections between seemingly unrelated words. Her ambivalent subjects were significantly more creative than those in a control group. When you are in a state of mind in which things aren’t resolved into their conventional categories, you are more likely to see new possibilities.
Isn’t it time we stood up for ambivalence as a valid and necessary mode of comprehending the world?
Then again, maybe that’s a terrible idea.