That title sounds a bit obvious. In college, a time that now seems long in my past, friends wanted me to take sides on a variety of issues. I didn’t see the need to feel passionately about issues which clearly had reasonable arguments on either side. I even took pride in my ability to see a situation from multiple points of view. That also meant I could play roles easily; while I never was on a debating team — I am not a fan of debates — I could easily argue either side of an issue.
This trait also presents itself as a difficulty with decision making. I often refrained from making decisions, particularly difficult decisions that had a lasting effect on my life. One result is I end up staying in sub-optimal situations, such as a job, longer than I really should. I’ve since formed some concrete opinions about certain issues that used to have me on the fence, but I still struggle with major personal decisions.
The Wall Street Journal included an interesting article about ambivalence, a trait long ignored by (ambivalent?) psychologists.
Now, researchers have been investigating how ambivalence, or lack of it, affects people’s lives, and how they might be able to make better decisions. Overall, thinking in shades of gray is a sign of maturity, enabling people to see the world as it really is…
If there isn’t an easy answer, ambivalent people, more than black-and-white thinkers, are likely to procrastinate and avoid making a choice, for instance about whether to take a new job, says Dr. Harreveld. But if after careful consideration an individual still can’t decide, one’s gut reaction may be the way to go…
Ambivalent individuals’ ability to see all sides of an argument and feel mixed emotions appears to have some benefits. They may be better able to empathize with others’ points of view, for one thing. And when people are able to feel mixed emotions, such as hope and sadness, they tend to have healthier coping strategies, such as when a spouse passes away, according to Dr. Larsen. They may also be more creative because the different emotions lead them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have dismissed.
There are some good tidbits and suggestions from the article.
- Rather than listing all pros and cons, ambivalent people could make decisions easier by paring down the variables to just a few important ones.
- Positive feedback like a raise could motivate someone who is ambivalent about their job to perform better.
Ambivalence may not be a trait as the article suggests. It may just be a state of mind that can change depending on the situation. After all, I do have strong opinions about certain issues — you will never find me in a group labeled “undecided” for an election — even though I can often understand where someone with an opposing view point is coming from.
The Wall Street Journal article was followed by comments from readers who thought the article was based on faulty social science. Do you believe that ambivalence, or perhaps the ability to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white, can ever be an advantage?
Published or updated October 8, 2010.