Ambivalence Is Awful. No, Wait, It’s Awesome.

The state of the universe.
June 13 2013 7:41 AM

Ambivalence Is Awesome

Or is it awful? Sometimes it’s best to have conflicted feelings.

Ambivalence refers to the state of experiencing conflicting beliefs or feelings simultaneously

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Tell me your position on the NSA government surveillance revelations. Do you believe that Edward Snowden is a quiet hero who has performed a vital public service? Or do you think he is a traitor who broke the most solemn of oaths?

You may have little trouble answering. Some of us, however, will be tempted to answer “yes” to both questions. Like a quantum particle, we find ourselves in two positions at once: Snowden is a whistle-blower and a sneak. We may also be both for and against the death penalty, or pro-choice and anti-abortion. If pressed, we might come down on one side or the other of these debates. But we will feel terrible about it.

We are the Ambivalents, unable not to see both sides of the argument, frozen in the no-man’s land between armies of true believers. We cannot speak our name, because there is no respectable way to confess that you believe two opposing propositions, no ballot that allows you to vote for competing candidates, no questionnaire in which you can tick the box, "I agree with both of these conflicting views." So the Ambivalents avoid the question, or check "I don't know," or grit their teeth and pick a side. Consequently, our ambivalence doesn’t leave a trace. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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Ambivalence refers to the state of experiencing conflicting beliefs or feelings simultaneously. The prefix ambi means both; the suffix valence derives from the Latin for vigor and refers to the attraction or aversion felt toward something. Someone can feel a positive or negative valence. Or both.

Ambivalence is not the same as indifference, with which it is often confused. Someone in an ambivalent state of mind is experiencing an excess of opinion, not an absence of it. An ambivalent person may feel very strongly about the subject at hand without reaching anything like a coherent point of view on it.

Actually, all of us are Ambivalents at different moments. You almost certainly know what it’s like to feel incapable of reconciling contradictory thoughts: to be of two minds or to experience mixed emotions. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that a capacity for ambivalence indicated intellectual ability: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Freud saw emotional ambivalence as an intrinsic part of the human condition.

Modern social scientists have found ambivalence harder to come to terms with. They are keen on categorization, and have a bias toward assuming that a person believes A or B, is happy or sad. For a long time, ambivalence was treated as little more than a measurement error. But in recent years, scholars have been taking our grey areas more seriously.

Frenk van Harreveld, of the University of Amsterdam’s Uncertainty Lab, presented Dutch students with information about the passing of a controversial employment law in the Netherlands. One group read a briefing that made a strong argument against the law, while another received a briefing that made both cases with equal force, a standard experimental method for inducing a state of ambivalence.

The participants were then told they would be asked to choose a position and were given a few minutes to think about it. All the while, electrodes attached to their heads measured the moisture in their skin. Van Harreveld found that the students in the ambivalent condition were deeply uncomfortable about settling on a view, and that this discomfort only increased once they had committed. They literally sweated over their decision. Van Harreveld explained to me that, for the ambivalent person, committing to a position, even though the decision has no consequence, is inevitably painful: “If you believe two things at once and you’re forced to give one up, then you will experience a sense of loss.”

Another member of the Uncertainty Lab, Iris Schneider, noted that our metaphors for ambivalence are rooted in the body: We say, “on the one hand, on the other hand,” and we “waver” or “feel torn” before “taking a stand.” Schneider tested her hypothesis that these are more than just figures of speech. She presented students with two different versions of a newspaper article about a controversial policy. One group read a positive take on it, while the other group read about its pros and cons.

The participants were then asked to consider their view on the issue while standing on a Wii balance board. The people who were experiencing ambivalence moved from side to side more than those who were not. Even more strikingly, this effect worked in reverse. In a separate experiment, Schneider used the unstable board to make people move from side to side while reflecting on a difficult issue. They were more likely to feel ambivalent than people who were standing still or moving up and down.