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.

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.

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.