People who tend to experience mixed feelings are less likely to fall prey to two common cognitive biases, according to new research published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. The findings indicate that being able to simultaneously see both the positive and negative sides of things has some psychological benefits.
“I think we live in a time where there is a lot of emphasis on ‘strong’ opinions and people who are very ‘certain’ about their stances, leading to division and polarization,” said study author Iris K. Schneider, a professor of social and economic cognition at the University of Cologne.
“There seems to be very little room for the fact that many important issues are actually multi-faceted, with both positive and negative sides to them. Indeed, there is a little bit of bias against being ambivalent because it is seen as indecisive and uncertain. I believe that this is not justified and that there are benefits to being ambivalent because it provides a broader, more realistic view of the world.”
In four studies, Schneider and her colleagues examined the relationship between ambivalence and two cognitive biases. Two studies examined correspondence bias, also known as the fundamental attribution error, which describes the tendency to over-emphasize personality-based rather than situational explanations for another’s behavior. The two other studies examined self‐serving bias, meaning the tendency to attribute one’s successes to internal factors and one’s failures to external factors.
All the studies, which included 1,832 participants in total, measured ambivalence using the Trait Ambivalence Scale. Participants were considered high in ambivalence if they agreed with statements such as “My thoughts are often contradictory” and “I usually see both the positive as well as the negative side of things.”
The researchers found that those who scored higher on the measure tended to display lower levels of correspondence bias and self‐serving bias. In other words, the higher people were in trait ambivalence, the less likely they were to favor internal over external attributions to explain another’s behavior and the less likely they were to attribute their success more to themselves than to situations.
“Some people are in general more ambivalent than others — this means that they score higher on trait ambivalence,” Schneider told PsyPost. “They feel more ambivalent more often, more intensely, and about more topics. These ‘ambivalents’ are less one-sided in their thinking and make less biased judgments about others, giving these others a fairer shake.”
Both those who were high in ambivalence and those who were low in ambivalence tended to make strong internal attributions. But those low in ambivalence tended to make weak external attributions. Highly ambivalent participants, in contrast, tended to make strong external attributions as well. “Thus, their attributions were more balanced,” the researchers said.
As with all research, the findings include some caveats. “One limitation of the study is that it is correlational. This means that we cannot be sure whether more ambivalence causes less bias, or more bias causes less ambivalence. However, ambivalence, in this case, was a personality trait, and we know these to be relatively stable. This means that it is very likely that the trait influenced the judgment and not vice versa,” Schneider explained. “Nevertheless, we need to do more experimental work to figure this out. We also need to see whether this effect extends to other domains in which people are biased, such as for instance, decision-making.”
“I believe there are benefits to ambivalence, especially in a world that is so polarized,” Schneider added. “However, ambivalence can make some people uncomfortable because they feel that they are ‘wishy-washy.’ When you feel ambivalent, try and think of the word of Scott Fitzgerald, who said: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’”
“If you want to try and bring more ambivalence in your life, try making pros and cons lists. We usually use them to make decisions, but trying to force yourself to come up with the positives and negatives of an issue can help you see the issue in a more nuanced way.”
Read the full study: “Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases“, authored by Iris K. Schneider, Sheida Novin, Frenk van Harreveld, and Oliver Genschow.