Why it’s sometimes okay to be indecisive
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Let’s say you went out to dinner for a long-awaited reunion with your family members. The waiter goes through the menus and returns 10 minutes later to take your orders. At this point, you silently wonder if anyone close to you, who is always slow to decide anything, will delay the whole ordering process.
True to form, this relative hems and haws on whether to order steak or swordfish. The waiter tries to be polite, but you can feel the irritation from the building. Eventually the parent makes a choice, but you’re pretty sure everything will be repeated for dessert.
Being chronically ambivalent can seem like an inadequate, even irritating, quality. People who can’t make up their minds not only take a long time to make a decision, like in a restaurant scenario, but they also can’t be trusted to stick to a plan. particular action. Knowing that these people are flouting even seemingly minor commitments, you are less likely to have confidence that they will follow through. That same parent may offer to buy a birthday present for one of your younger cousins, but you’d rather get it yourself because at least then you know he’ll be taken care of on time.
As a new study by Iris Schneider and colleagues at the University of Cologne (2021) points out, “Ambivalence is at the heart of many topics that people care deeply about. Even if you are a fairly determined type of person, you can still have mixed feelings about the people in your life, from your romantic partner to maybe that indecisive parent. Previous research cited by German researchers shows that there is a wide range of mixed feelings people can have, ranging from liking or hating vegetarianism to even a seemingly positive life event like a college degree.
What are the possible advantages of ambivalence?
Although ambivalence generally has negative connotations, Schneider and her fellow researchers suggest that there may be concrete benefits. People who look at both sides of every problem can potentially make better choices and be more specific when they finally make a decision.
Consider this parent’s indecision as to which main course to order. Balancing factors like healthy choices, price, and method of preparation may ultimately lead to a better selection than rushing to get what is first on the list of possible entrees. How many times have you been disappointed when your main course arrives, and you realize you made the wrong choice by being too hasty?
The authors believe that the quality of indecision represents a stable disposition or personality trait. People can sometimes be faced with a difficult choice that causes them to balance the pros and cons, such as taking a position on a controversial social issue. However, the analysis by Schneider et al. Previous studies have suggested that there is remarkable consistency between various attitude decisions in the extent to which people hesitate. The “trait” ambivalence, in other words, outweighs the “state” or situational ambivalence depending on their setting.
Ambivalent tendency of people to judge others
Using well-known social psychological paradigms involving the perception of the person, Schneider and his coauthors investigated whether the better decision-making quality of ambivalent people would give them an advantage when it comes to judging the behavior of others. . Would their weighting on both sides of an issue help them be less likely to give way to potential bias?
Consider a situation where you see someone tripping over a banana peel, an example the authors use to explain their reasoning. This situation, a classic of comedy, leads you to pass judgment on the unfortunate victim. Most people will automatically assume that the person is clumsy, because of what is called the correspondence bias. When you see someone else behaving, you tend to attribute that behavior to their own qualities. This is because you are ignoring the reality of the situation and almost anyone would slip into such an obvious tripping hazard.
The reverse happens when you are making judgments about your own behavior in which you use the situation as an explanation for something you have done. In the selfish bias, you try to see yourself as favorably as possible. So, if you were the one landing on the ground when you slid over that peel, you would undoubtedly attribute the result not to your own awkwardness but to the presence of the banana peel.
These attribution biases, such as Schneider et al. explain, can be quantified as “the difference in strength between internal and external attributions”. Low-ambivalent people should be quick to make extreme attributions when judging behaviors in relation to themselves. Very ambivalent people, on the other hand, should be able to see both sides of the story and come up with a more balanced set of attributes.
Testing the benefits of ambivalence
The large body of research on perceptions of people has provided researchers with well-established measures to use in testing the prediction that highly ambivalent people judge behaviors impartially. First, however, see how you will get the test the authors use to measure trait ambivalence. Rate each item on a scale of 1 (does not apply to me) to 7 (strongly applies to me).
- My thoughts are often contradictory
- Many topics make me feel conflicted
- I usually see both the positive and the negative side of things
- I often experience both sides of a problem that pulls me over
- I often find that there are pros and cons to everything
- I often feel torn between two sides of a problem
- Most of the time my thoughts and feelings are not necessarily in accord with each other
- Sometimes when I think about a subject I almost feel like I am physically rocking from side to side
- My feelings are often both positive and negative
- I often feel that my thoughts and feelings are in conflict when I think about a topic
When you look at your ratings of each item, you can see how ambivalence can occur regarding having both positive and negative feelings (items 3, 5 and 9) simultaneously, a sense of ambivalence about of specific situations or state ambivalence (items 2, 6, 7 and 10), feeling metaphorically torn between two poles of a problem (items 4 and 8) and just experiencing the contradictory nature of the ambivalence (item 1).
Then you can put yourself in the shoes of the participants in the four studies that Scheider et al. report in which they used standard attribution bias measures to test whether highly ambivalent people would in fact be better able to see both sides of a situation by perceiving a person. The online samples were on average 36 to 37 years old and were recruited through a paid website service.
For correspondence bias, participants read four scenarios in which a protagonist engaged in the equivalent of the banana peel example where participants judged the cause of someone’s behavior to be due to the person or situation. To test for selfish bias, the authors switched to a different kind of scenario. Participants were given 20 anagrams to solve in two minutes. Regardless of their performance, participants then received false feedback informing them that they had performed very well or very poorly compared to other participants in the same test.
Participants then rated their performance based on internal (“I’m smart”) or external (“The test was difficult”) causes. If the selfish bias is at work, the participant would be more likely to attribute success to ability and failure to difficulty of the test.
Ambivalent people are more rational, but at what cost?
Turning now to outcomes, as the authors predicted, more ambivalent people were less likely to fall prey to either attribution bias. In both paradigms of person perception, those who scored high on ambivalence avoided extreme judgments along the internal-external dimension, although somewhat less for the selfish condition than the match condition. .
Reflecting on their findings, the authors suggest that the reason ambivalent people are less prone to prejudice is that “ambivalence leads to broader treatment and the incorporation of diverse perspectives.” Very ambivalent people “see the world not only as good or bad, but more mixed and full of evaluative opposition.”
Unfortunately, however, there may be a cost that accompanies this more balanced assessment of the world. A quick decision can be the mental equivalent of removing the dressing from a wound without hesitation. It can be painful, but you will be done with it. For chronically ambivalent people, the inability to resolve conflict can lead to tension, worry, and an overall negative state of mind, as the authors suggest.
You may well be wondering whether it is better to make a wise decision than a quick one. After all, the people around the table don’t particularly care about the wisdom of someone’s choice of dinner as long as it’s done in a timely manner. The Schneider et al. the results suggest that perhaps the truly wise decision takes into account not only the pros and cons, but also the larger context and the ability to ‘read the play’.
To summarize, if you are someone who tends to err on the side of ambivalence when it comes to judging others, you can welcome U. Cologne’s conclusions. Your decisions in social situations are not always quick, but chances are they are well informed.
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