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Ambivalence: Healthy Indecision?


With the election just weeks away, you’d think that every American has surely chosen between the widely polarized candidates.

Yet pollsters insist there’s still a significant pool of undecided voters.  And other significant pools who may decide not vote at all. Hence the blistering last-minute (mostly negative) media blitz.

My last post reviewed the recent book, “How We Decide” . This post is about how we don’t decide – about ambivalence.

Some of us are quick-deciders whose rush to judgment omits later data and doesn’t allow time for intervening circumstances to evolve. Others are slow to decide, waiting for clarifying data to emerge, watching for events to unfold that may render decision-making unnecessary.



For some of us, everything must be certain -- black or white. We live in a world of clear choices. We speak our minds, make quick decisions, are less anxious about wrong choices, have fewer protracted problems in relationships, are less likely to consider others points of view. Perhaps we fell in love and got married right away.

Others of us comfortably navigate a world of grays, avoiding decisions if possible, feeling more regret after making them, thoughtful about making the right choice, staying longer in unhappy relationships, appreciating diversity and multiple points of view. We may spend hours in the sock aisle weighing the pros and cons of wool argyles vs. cotton stripes.

Perhaps culture plays a leading role. Western cultures need to put things in boxes while eastern philosophies have long acknowledged dualism: that something can be one thing as well as another. East and west collide in the Puzzlement Song made famous by Yul Brynner in “The King and I”:

There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know. Very often find confusion In conclusion I concluded long ago In my head are many facts that, as a student, I have studied to procure, In my head are many facts.. Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!
Black-and-white thinkers can get mired in one point of view, can’t appreciate others’ positions, can create conflict with unhealthy behaviors. Persons afflicted with clinical depression get stuck in a negative view of the world, are supersensitive to perceived slights, have trouble thinking about alternative explanations.

Ambivalent people are prone to examine all sides of an argument, scrutinize the evidence, reject oversimplification. The mixed emotions they feel make them better able to empathize with others points of view. Feeling mixed emotions makes them better able to cope with loss and disappointment. And they’re more creative since they consider all sorts of ideas a black-and-white thinker would dismiss out of hand.

Ambivalence about one’s job isn’t helpful. Those who aren’t ambivalent about their work perform it well if they like it, poorly if they don’t. Black-and-white employees focus on pay or whether they like their boss, but not on the total job.

The same goes for human relationships: black-and-white thinkers focus on a few of the other person’s good qualities while gray-thinkers can’t seem to put the other’s negative traits out of their mind. They can feel hurt or abandoned in the midst of their partner’s doing something nice. Nevertheless, recognizing a partner’s strengths and weaknesses is normal and a certain degree of relational ambivalence can be a sign of maturity.

Psychologists use various tests to tell if a person sees the world as black and white or shades of gray, or somewhere in between. Here are two such quizzes:

How You See Relationships
Rate each statement on a scale of one to nine, with one being the least ambivalent and nine being the most.

_____I am confused about my feelings toward my partner. _____I think about or worry about losing some of my independence by being involved with my partner. _____I am ambivalent or unsure about continuing in the relationship with my partner. _____I feel that my partner demands or requires too much of my time and attention. _____I feel “trapped” or pressured to continue in this relationship.

Total Scores
5-9 = very low ambivalence
10-13 = low ambivalence
14-18 = average
19-23 = high ambivalence
24-45 = very high ambivalence
*Source: Adapted from Braiker & Kelly’s Construct of Ambivalence
How You See Your Work
Rate each statement on a scale of one to six, with one being ‘completely incorrect’ and six being ‘completely correct.’
_____I have positive and negative feelings toward my job at the same time.
_____When I look at my job, thinking and feeling tell me different things.
_____I am torn in my attitude toward my job.
_____I face my job with mixed feelings.
_____My view of my job includes positive and negative ideas.
_____My feelings toward my job are conflicting with my ideas about my job.
_____My attitude toward my job is mixed.
Total Scores
Sum up your scores from each of the seven items.
If you scored a 24 or below, you likely have little ambivalence about your job.
If you scored a 25 or higher, you likely have a greater amount of ambivalence about your job.
Note: These scales are meant only to be informative.
*Source: Adapted from Riketta & Ziegler’s job ambivalence measure.
For this post I’ve borrowed heavily from “Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions” (Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2010) where columnist Shirley Wang notes that ambivalence has only recently attracted psychologists’ attention. According to the therapists she interviewed, thinking in shades of gray is a sign of maturity – a coming to grips with the world’s complexity. Yet there are few clues as to why we handle uncertainly so differently.
In my view, much of the loud and angry polarity we’re witnessing today – political and otherwise -- is not so much conflict between opposing and unbending certainties, as it is natural (and perhaps irreconcilable) tensions between certainty and ambivalence.
As Yul Brynner puzzled:
When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.
Chair – Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White & Max

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