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Decision-Making Difficult for Ambivalent People

This article was written by in People. 9 comments.

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.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Let it be, leave it alone, “laissez-faire” or better yet; laissez-nous faire (Leave us be). There is an advantage to only seeing shades of grey. You’re allowed to judge yourself but not others and as for decision making: Well, rather than use old-age French terms or scientific ones like ambivalence, the generation X folks among us have summed it up nicely with – whatever!

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avatar 2 Anonymous

It almost ties into the expression “Choose your battles wisely”. A person does not need to jump on everything and we learn that we do not have the time or energy to do so anyway. Some of the youthful passion seems to disappear but in it’s place is the strength of a tree that can withstand the storms and elements. In the financial rhelm I think it would help one to hold back rather than jump on any new trend or product that comes along. Contentment.

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avatar 3 lynn
avatar 4 eric

I am so guilty of this.

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avatar 5 TakeitEZ

This is my exact mindset. It has its advantages as the article states, but at times I feel that I miss out on some good opportunities because I take too long to make a decision. I want to work on becoming more decisive when it comes to important issues of life and start a plan of action instead of contemplating forever what the best course of action would be.

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avatar 6 ib

flipping a coin has helped me lots of times. i also have a “decision maker” which is a leather beanbag like paperweight that is two color/two sided: “yes” on one side and “no” on the other. coins are more portable and easily found.

i have this ‘challenge’ too. not only do i have the twins in my astrological makeup, but i also have two fish swimming in opposite directions, among other things. usually big decisions aren’t a problem. mostly low-level ones get me.

great post!

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avatar 7 ib

…oh yeah and you can go ahead and give me that raise. (=

(bribing from my parents totally worked on me as a kid to get those motivations going.)

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I definitely think that ambivalence simply is a result of the situation. Someone who isn’t a big fan of movies, music, or other pop culture may be very ambivalent about those types of things, but may be especially opinionated and decision oriented when it comes to politics. I don’t think it necessarily has to apply to all areas.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

It seems to me that ambivalence could be a great frugal tool if it keeps you from being swept along with fads and crazes. “Do I really like those Jimmy Choo shoes to make it worth the expenditure of hundreds of dollars?” vs. “Oh, those shoes are what all the cool kids are wearing.”
But if you’re of the wishy-washy subset of The Ambivalent, you might end up getting pulled along with your peers’ ideas (Jimmy Choo shoes! Big-screen TVs! Let’s all go on a cruise!) because you aren’t able to say, “I need to think about that some more and whether it will fit into my budget.”
Yes, you may miss some great opportunities. You may also dodge some investment bullets.

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