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Ambivalence is a state of having simultaneous, conflicting reactions towards some object. Stated another way, ambivalence is the experience of having an attitude towards someone or something that contains both positively and negatively valenced components. The term also refers to situations where "mixed feelings" of a more general sort are experienced, or where a person experiences uncertainty or indecisiveness concerning something. The expression "sitting on the fence" is often used to describe the feeling of ambivalence.
Ambivalence is experienced as psychologically unpleasant when the positive and negative aspects of a subject are both present in a person's mind at the same time. This state can lead to avoidance or procrastination, or to deliberate attempts to resolve the ambivalence. When the situation requires a decision to be made, people experience the greatest discomfort from their ambivalence ambivalent.
The psychological literature has distinguished between several different forms of ambivalence. One, often called subjective ambivalence or felt ambivalence, represents the psychological experience of conflict, mixed feelings, and indecision in the evaluation of some object. Subjective ambivalence is generally assessed using direct self-report measures asking people to report on these experiences (e.g., conflict) about the topic. Another type of ambivalence is often called objective ambivalence or potential ambivalence, and it represents the simultaneous acknowledgement of both positive and negative evaluations. Objective ambivalence is generally assessed using a method first developed by Kaplan, in which a standard bipolar attitude scale (e.g., extremely negative to extremely positive) is split into two separate scales, each independently assessing the magnitude of one valence (e.g., not at all negative to extremely negative). If a person endorses both positive and negative reactions towards the same object, then at least some objective ambivalence is present. Kaplan initially operationalized ambivalence as the lesser of the two reactions (i.e., positive or negative evaluations), also called conflicting reactions (and contrasted with dominant reactions). For example, if objective ambivalence towards exercising was assessed using two separate 6-point scales, and a person indicated that his or her evaluation was slightly negative (e.g., 2 on a 6-point scale) and extremely positive (e.g., 6 on a 6-point scale), this person's ambivalence would be quantified by the lesser of these two evaluations (i.e., a 2 in this example).
Much research has argued that the effects of ambivalence are often driven by subjective ambivalence, and people's motivation to reduce it. Because of this, researchers have sought to understand the antecedents of subjective ambivalence. Some of this research has examined the relationship between objective ambivalence and subjective ambivalence, often by seeking optimal ways of combining dominant and conflicting evaluations that best predict subjective ambivalence. For example, Thompson and colleagues argue that people with positive and negative evaluations which are of similar magnitude (e.g., +4 & -3) should experience more ambivalence than people whose evaluations are of dissimilar magnitude (e.g., +4 and -1). Similarly, they argue that even with relatively similar positive and negative evaluations, people whose evaluations are more extreme (e.g., +6 and -5) should experience more ambivalence than people whose evaluations are less extreme (e.g., +2 and -1). The formula they recommend, often called the "Griffin" formula or the similarity-intensity model, is Ambivalence = (P + N) / 2 - |P-N|, where P and N are the magnitude of positive and negative reactions, respectively. Other research has found that the relative contribution of the dominant reactions decreases as the magnitude of conflicting reactions increases. Additional research has found that objective ambivalence predicts subjective ambivalence to a greater extent when both the positive and negative reactions are accessible or when a decision about the attitude object is imminent. Still other research has found that objective ambivalence is not the only thing which produces subjective ambivalence. For example, interpersonal ambivalence - the presence of attitudes which are in conflict with those of important others, independently predicts subjective ambivalence as does the mere anticipation of information which may conflict with one's preexisting attitude.
Ambivalence is often conceptualized as a negative predictor of attitude strength. That is, as an attitude becomes more ambivalent, its strength decreases. Strong attitudes are those that are stable over time, resistant to change, and predict behavior and information processing. Studies have found that ambivalent attitudes are less stable over time and less resistant to change and less predictive of behavior.
In addition, because ambivalence is conceptualized as psychologically uncomfortable, people appear motivated to reduce their ambivalence. Notably, people appear to pay more attention to information relevant to ambivalent attitudes, and particularly if this information is perceived as having the potential to reduce ambivalence.
The concept of ambivalence was introduced into psychiatric parlance by Eugen Bleuler in 1910-11. Bleuler distinguished three main types of ambivalence: volitional, intellectual, and emotional. Volitional ambivalence refers to an inability to decide on an action – what Montaigne called “a spirit justly balanced betweene two equal desires”. The concept (if not Bleuler's term) had a long prehistory, reaching back through Buridan's ass, starving between two equally attractive bales of hay in the Middle Ages, to Aristotle. Intellectual ambivalence – the sceptical belief that “There is no reason but hath a contrary to it” - also follows a long tradition reaching back through Montaigne to Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrho. (Freud considered Bleuler's stress on intellectual ambivalence particularly appropriate given his own ambivalence towards Freud's intellectual constructs, alternatively praising and criticizing them). Emotional ambivalence involved opposing affective attitudes towards the same object, as with the man who both loved and hated his wife.
While mainly dealing with ambivalence in relation to the psychological splitting of schizophrenia, Bleuler also noted how “in the dreams of healthy persons, affective as well as intellectual ambivalence is a common phenomenon”.
Freud was swift to pickup Bleuler's concept of ambivalence, applying it to areas he had previously dealt with in terms of ambiguous language, or the persistent co-existence of love and hatred aimed at the same person. Freud also extended the scope of Bleuler's term to cover the co-existence of active and passive trends in the same instinctual impulse - what Freud called "pairs of contrary component instincts" such as looking and being looked at.
Karl Abraham explored the presence of ambivalence in mourning – something he thought to be a universal phenomenon. Others in psychoanalysis have traced the roots of contradictory impulses (usually love and hate) to very early stages of psychosexual development.
Defences against feeling both of the two contradictory emotions include psychological repression, isolation and displacement. Thus, for example, an analysand's love for his father might be quite consciously experienced and openly expressed – while his "hate" for the same object might be heavily repressed and only indirectly expressed, and thus only revealed in analysis. A drug addict may feel ambivalently about their drug of choice; they know that the drug has a destructive effect on their lives (socially, financially, medically, and otherwise), while simultaneously seeking and using it because of the pleasure they get from the drug's usage.
Another relevant distinction is that whereas the psychoanalytic notion of "ambivalence" sees it as engendered by all neurotic conflict, a person's everyday "mixed feelings" may easily be based on a quite realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the thing being considered.
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Karen Pinker, Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence (2009)