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Why It's Sometimes OK to Be Indecisive

New research shows that indecisiveness isn’t always a bad quality to have.

Key points

  • Ambivalence is usually regarded as an undesirable quality, especially if it inconveniences others.
  • A 10-item test involving statements such as "my feelings are often simultaneously positive and negative" measures ambivalence in decision-making.
  • Ambivalent people are less likely to fall prey to bias when judging others. Their thinking may incorporate more diverse perspectives.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Let's say you’re out to dinner for a long-awaited reunion with your family members. The server passes around the menus and returns 10 minutes later to take down your orders. At this point, you silently wonder whether that one relative of yours who’s always slow to decide on anything will hold up the entire ordering process.

True to form, this relative hems and haws over whether to order the steak or the swordfish. The server tries hard to remain polite, but you can sense the building irritation. Eventually, the relative makes a choice, but you’re pretty sure the whole thing will be repeated for the dessert course.

Being chronically ambivalent may seem to be a maladaptive if not irritating quality. People who can’t make up their minds not only take a long time to come to a decision, as in the restaurant scenario, but also can’t be trusted to stick to a particular course of action. Knowing that these people waffle about even seemingly minor commitments, you’ll be less likely to feel confident that they will follow through with action. That same relative may offer to buy a birthday present for one of your young cousins, but you’d rather get it yourself because at least then you know it will be taken care of in time.

As pointed out in a new study by University of Cologne’s Iris Schneider and colleagues (2021), “Ambivalence is at the heart of many topics that people care deeply about.” Even though you may be a pretty decisive type of person, you can still hold mixed feelings about the people in your life, from your romantic partner to perhaps that indecisive relative. Previous research the German researchers cite shows that there’s a wide range of ambivalent feelings that people can have, from loving or hating vegetarianism to even a seemingly positive life event such as college graduation.

What Are the Possible Benefits of Ambivalence?

Although ambivalence usually has negative connotations, Schneider and her fellow researchers propose that there can be some concrete benefits. People who look at both sides of every issue can potentially make better choices and be more accurate by the time they finally do make a decision.

Consider that relative’s indecisiveness about which main course to order. Balancing such factors as healthy choices, price, and method of preparation may ultimately lead to a better selection than a rush to get whatever is first on the list of possible entrees. How many times have you been disappointed when your own main dish arrives, and you realize you made the wrong choice by being too hasty?

The authors believe that the quality of indecisiveness represents a stable personality disposition or trait. People may occasionally face a tough choice that leads them to balance the pros and cons, such as a position on a controversial social issue. However, Schneider et al.'s analysis of previous studies suggested that there is remarkable consistency across various attitudinal decisions in the extent to which people vacillate. “Trait” ambivalence, in other words, outweighs “state” or situational ambivalence according to their framework.

Ambivalent People's Tendency to Judge Others

Using well-known social psychological paradigms involving person perception, Schneider and her coauthors investigated whether the better decision-making quality of ambivalent people would give them an edge when it comes to judging the behavior of other people. Would their weighing of both sides of an issue help them be less likely to give way to potential bias?

Consider a situation in which you see someone trip over a banana peel, an example the authors use to explain their reasoning. This situation, a classic in comedy, leads you to form a judgment of the unfortunate victim. Most people will automatically assume that the person is clumsy, due to what’s called the correspondence bias. When you see someone else engage in a behavior, you tend to attribute that behavior to the person’s own qualities. This is because you aren’t taking into account the reality of the situation and that almost anyone would slip on such an obvious tripping hazard.

The opposite occurs when you're making judgments of your own behavior in which you use the situation as the explanation for something you've done. In the self-serving bias, you try to see yourself as favorably as possible. Thus, if you were the one landing on the floor when you slipped on that peel, you would undoubtedly attribute the outcome not to your own clumsiness but to the presence of the banana peel.

These biases in attributions, as Schneider et al. explain, can be quantified as “the difference in strength between internal and external attributions.” People low in ambivalence should be quick to make extreme attributions when they judge the behaviors in comparison to judging themselves. The highly ambivalent, conversely, should be able to see both sides of the situation and come to a more balanced set of attributions.

Testing the Benefits of Ambivalence

The large body of research on person perception biases provided the researchers with well-established measures to use to test the prediction that the highly ambivalent would judge behaviors in an unbiased fashion. First, however, see how you would score on the test the authors used to measure trait ambivalence. Rate each item on a scale from 1 (does not apply to me) to 7 (strongly applies to me).

  1. My thoughts are often contradictory
  2. Many topics make me feel conflicted
  3. I usually see both the positive as well as the negative side of things
  4. I often experience both sides of an issue pulling on me
  5. I often find that there are pros and cons to everything
  6. I often feel torn between two sides of an issue
  7. Most of the time, my thoughts and feelings are not necessarily in accordance with each other
  8. Sometimes when I think about a topic, it almost feels like I am physically switching from side to side
  9. My feelings are often simultaneously positive and negative
  10. I often experience that my thoughts and feelings are in conflict when I’m thinking about a topic

As you look at your ratings of each item, you can see how ambivalence can occur with regard to having positive and negative feelings simultaneously (items 3, 5, and 9), feeling ambivalent about specific situations, or state ambivalence (items 2, 6, 7, and 10), metaphorically feeling torn between two poles of an issue (items 4 and 8), and just experiencing the contradictory nature of ambivalence (item 1).

Next, you can place yourself in the position of the participants in the four studies that Scheider et al. report in which they used standard attributional bias measures to test whether the highly ambivalent would in fact be better able to see both sides of a person perception situation. The online samples averaged about 36 to 37 years of age 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 the participants judged the cause of someone's behavior as due to the person or the situation. To test self-serving bias, the authors switched to a different type of scenario. Participants were given 20 anagrams to solve in two minutes. Regardless of how well they performed, participants then received false feedback informing them that they either did very well or very poorly compared to others taking the same test.

Participants then rated their performance according to internal (“I am smart”) or external (“The test was difficult”) causes. If the self-serving bias is in operation, the participant would be more likely to attribute success to abilities and failure to the test difficulty.

Ambivalent People Are More Rational, but at What Cost?

Turning now to the results, as the authors predicted, people higher in ambivalence were less likely to fall prey to either attributional bias. Across both person perception paradigms, those who scored high on ambivalence avoided the extreme judgments along the internal-external dimension, though somewhat less so for the self-serving than the correspondence condition.

Reflecting on their findings, the authors suggest that the reason ambivalent people are less prey to bias is that “ambivalence leads to broader processing and incorporation of diverse perspectives.” People high in ambivalence “see the world not as just good or bad, but more mixed and full of evaluative opposition.”

Unfortunately, though, there may be a cost that comes along with this more balanced appraisal of the world. A quick decision may be the mental equivalent of pulling the bandage off a wound without hesitating. It may be painful, but you get it over with. For the chronically ambivalent, the inability to resolve conflict can lead to tension, worry, and an overall negative state of mind, as the authors suggest.

You might well ask the question of whether it’s better to have a wise decision than one which is quick. After all, the people sitting around the dinner table don’t particularly care how wise someone’s dinner choice is as long as it’s done in a timely manner. The Schneider et al. findings suggest that perhaps the truly wise decision takes into account not only the pro and con balance sheet but also the broader context and the ability to “read the room.”

To sum up, if you’re someone who tends to err on the side of ambivalence when it comes to judging others, you can take heart in the U. Cologne findings. Your decisions in social situations may not always be quick, but there’s a good chance they will be well-informed.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Schneider, I. K., Novin, S., Harreveld, F., & Genschow, O. (2021). Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(2), 570–586. doi: 10.1111/bjso.12417

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