Many studies indicate that individuals might experience ambivalent emotions--a blend of positive and negative states--sometimes called mixed emotions (Aaker, Drolet, & Griffin, 2008). Ambivalent emotions have been shown to enhance creativity (Fong, 2006).
Some of the emotions that are commonly studied by researchers evoke ambivalent feelings. One example is nostalgia, in which individuals experience a combination of warmth and connection to some past event or object as well as a tinge of loss. Another example is the German concept of life longings or Sehnsucht (e.g., Scheibe, Freund, & Baltes, 2007)--intense, bittersweet, inspiring, but unfulfilled desires. The opportunities and possibilities elicit positive feelings, like pleasure and determination, whereas the obstacles elicit negative feelings, like frustration and regret.
Fong (2006) conducted a study in which participants were instructed to recall an event in their lives that evokes ambivalent emotions, like a graduation. The other participants were asked to reminisce about an episode in their lives that evoked positive emotions or negative emotions but not both. Next, participants completed the Remote Associates Task, typically conceptualized as a measure of creativity (Mednick, 1962). On each trial, three words appeared, such as "envy", "golf", and "beans". Participants attempted to identify a word, in this instance "green", that is related to these three terms.
Ambivalent emotions, compared to positive or negative emotions in isolation, enhanced performance on the Remote Associates Task (Fong, 2006). If individuals felt these ambivalent emotions seemed unusual, this blend of positive and negative emotions was especially likely to improve creativity.
According to Fong (2006), individuals often assume, sometimes incorrectly, this blend of emotions is uncommon. Because these emotions are uncommon, they presume the context must be uncommon or unique as well. Cognitive operations that evolved to accommodate infrequent and unique events are thus evoked. These operations, presumably, enhance the capacity of individuals to uncover novel and effective solutions, manifesting as creativity.
Alternatively, ambivalent emotions might evoke a broader array of memories. That is, from the perspective of mood congruence theory, positive feelings often elicit more desirable thoughts and memories, whereas negative feelings often elicit undesirable thoughts and memories. A more extensive range of cognitions, therefore, are primed, enhancing flexibility (Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005). Thoughts that are remotely related, or unrelated, to each other are thus activated, ultimately improving creativity (Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005).
When people experience a simultaneous blend of positive and negative emotions, their judgments tend to be more accurate. For example, in one study, conducted by Rees, Rothman, Lehavy, and Sanchez-Burks (2013), American individuals were asked to write about a time in which they felt happy, sad, or a blend of happiness and sadness. Next, they were asked to estimate the average daily temperature of eight American cities. If participants had experienced ambivalent emotions, their estimates were more accurate.
The second study replicated these results with other tasks. For example, if participants experienced ambivalent emotions, their estimates of the year in which various events transpired or the percentage of students who belong to minority races also improved.
The third study examined the mechanism that underpins these findings. In particular, this study showed that ambivalent emotions inspire people to consider alternative perspectives. Participants imagined positive, negative, or mixed feelings about a potential job candidate. They were then asked to indicate the degree to which they would like to receive more positive or negative information about the candidate. In general, people who experienced mixed feelings towards the candidate sought both positive and negative feedback, at least relative to people who experienced positive feelings towards the candidate.
Arguably, when people experience ambivalent emotions, they perceive the environment as a combination of safe and threatening. They may feel the need to expand their perspective and, therefore, will consider alternative sources of information.
According to Larsen, Hemenover, Norris, and Cacioppo (2003), the extent to which individuals embrace ambivalent emotions represents a key determinants of resilience. That is, if people can experience positive and negative emotions at the same time, sometimes called co-activation (Larsen, Hemenover, Norris, & Cacioppo, 2003), they can more readily learn to cope with distressing, or even traumatic, events and memories. In particular, these individuals can retain aversive or unpleasant memories, thoughts, and emotions in working memory, ultimately assimilating these cognitions with a meaningful narrative. The intensity of these negative emotions thus diminishes.
Many studies have uncovered findings that support this position. Bauer and Bonanno (2001), for example, collated narratives and accounts of widows and widowers, six months after the loss of their partner. Some of these individuals alluded to only positive or only negative features. Other individuals referred to a combination of positive and negative features. If the individuals had alluded to both positive and negative details, they were more likely to adapt effectively to this loss, as gauged by clinical interviews 6 to 25 months later.
Ambivalent or mixed emotions have also been shown to predict physical health. For example, as Hershfield, Scheibe, Sims, and Carstensen (2012) showed, if people often experienced mixed emotions, the usual decline in health with age is not as pronounced.
In this study, 5 times a day across a week, participants were prompted to complete a questionnaire that gauges the extent to which they were feeling various positive emotions and negative emotions at that moment. Their health was then measured 5 and 10 years later. Specifically, they completed a questionnaire that gauged problems with their sensory systems, such as hearing loss, cardiovascular system, such as pains in the chest, musculoskeletal system, such as swollen joints, and genitourinary system, such as incontinence. People who often reported both positive and negative emotions at a specific time were more likely to be healthy in the future.
The researchers invoked the co-activation model of health, proposed by Larsen et al. (2003), to explain these findings. According to this model, mixed emotions imply that people can derive meaning from adversities. They can appreciate the positive consequences of negative events. Mixed emotions, therefore, might diminish the physiological impact of stress.
The authors concede that several issues have not been resolved. First, experiential sampling cannot ascertain whether the positive and negative emotions were entirely simultaneous. Second, whether mixed emotions arise from evoke positive emotions in response to negative events or negative emotions in response to positive events has not been determined and may vary across cultures. Third, whether the benefits of mixed emotions can be ascribed to self-integration instead of self-compartmentalization has not been clarified either.
As Larsen, McGraw, and Cacioppo (2001) showed, poignant events often elicit ambivalent emotions. In one study, participants watched a poignant film, Life is Beautiful, depicting a warm, humorous perspective about a tragic setting: a concentration camp. In particular, before the film, only 10% of participants rated their feelings as a combination of happy and sad. This percentage increased to 44% after the movie.
In addition to poignancy, transitions in life may also evoke ambivalent feelings, as Larsen, McGraw, and Cacioppo (2001) demonstrated. The emotional state of college students was assessed at various times during the year. In particular, some of the students were assessed just before their summer vacation. Relative to most times of year, in which 16% of students reported they experienced ambivalent emotions, immediately before this vacation, 54% of students reported these mixed feelings. Presumably, the summer vacation evoked positive emotions, whereas the potential change in friendships and camaraderie evoked negative emotions. Some music, including sad pieces, have also been shown to elicit both positive and negative feelings (Hunter, Schellenberg, & Schimmack, 2010).
Thus, during periods of transition, or other events with both positive and negative implications, ambivalent emotions are common (e.g., Larsen, McGraw, & Cacioppo, 2001). Even in these settings, however, not everyone experiences ambivalent emotions. Indeed, several factors influence the likelihood that individuals will experience ambivalence (for determinants of ambivalent attitudes, which can elicit ambivalent emotions, see attitudinal ambivalence).
For example, in some cultures, ambivalent emotions are especially common. That is, relative to cultures that adopt a Confucian or Buddhist perspective, cultures that adopt a Christian or Enlightened perspective are not as likely to experience these mixed feelings (Bagozzi, Wong, & Yi, 1999& see also Williams & Aaker, 2002).
Confucian or Buddhist philosophies embrace contradictory orientations. Hence, they can accept the conflicting implications of positive and negative emotions. Ambivalent emotions do not seem contradictory or dissonant and, therefore, are more likely to be embraced rather than shunned. Christian or Enlightened philosophies do not embrace contradictory orientations. Ambivalent emotions indicate the environment or situation is both positive and negative& this conflict elicits a sense of dissonance or unease (Cacioppo, Gardner, & Bernston, 1997& Priester & Petty, 1996).
Nevertheless, Miyamoto, Uchida, and Ellsworth (2010) showed that both American and Japanese individuals experienced a blend of positive and negative emotions. One important disparity between these samples was uncovered, however: in contrast to their American counterparts, Japanese individuals were more likely to experience ambivalent feelings in pleasant, rather than unpleasant, contexts.
In addition to culture, other factors also affect the likelihood that individuals accept dissonance and thus experience or embrace ambivalent emotions. If individuals are impulsive, they tend to be more distressed by mixed emotions (Ramanathan & Williams, 2007). They will, therefore, be less inclined to experience these ambivalent states.
Similarly, in one study, reported by Hui, Fok, and Bond (2009), participants were asked to assess the degree to which they tolerate, and even embrace, contradictory beliefs, called dialectical thinking. Furthermore, the extent to which they experience ambivalent emotions, called affective synchrony (Rafaeli, Rogers, & Revelle, 2007), was also ascertained. Individuals who reported dialectical thinking were more likely to experience ambivalent emotions.
Although ambivalent emotions are prevalent, when individuals reflect upon previous events in their lives, they underestimate the extent to which they experienced mixed feelings during these episodes. For example, they often assume they experience positive, instead of ambivalent, emotional states (Aaker, Drolet, & Griffin, 2008). Specifically, ambivalent emotions indicate the context is positive and negative, eliciting a sense of dissonance. To override this dissonance, they attempt to shift their memory, attention, or appraisals, amplifying either positive emotions or negative emotions, but not both. Thus, when they consider past events, individuals tend to recall only pleasant or only unpleasant feelings.
Aaker, Drolet, and Griffin (2008) undertook a study that corroborates this argument. Participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt mixed emotions, happiness, and sadness after completing an exam. Two weeks later, they were asked the same question. Events that actually evoked mixed emotions were recalled, only two weeks later, as evoking happiness or sadness, especially if they also reported these feelings had elicited a sense of conflict. A subsequent study showed this distorted recall was especially pronounced in Anglo-Americans as opposed to Asian Americans.
Many people feel uncomfortable with advertisements or other forms of information that evoke ambivalent or mixed emotions. They might, for example, feel uncomfortable with a discussion about graduations, because leaving school or university evokes feelings of both happiness at progressing and sadness at leaving. These emotions contradict each other, evoking a sense of dissonance or unease.
Nevertheless, as Hong and Lee (2010) showed, if individuals experience an abstract construal (for a definition, see construal level theory), this discomfort with ambivalent emotions dissipates. That is, whenever people orient their attention to overarching or intangible patterns and concepts instead of specific, tangible details, they embrace information that evokes ambivalent emotions.
Presumably, once they adopt an abstract construal, people feel a sense of detachment from the environment, diminishing the intensity of their feelings. In addition, this abstract construal enables individuals to integrate or reconcile contradictory emotions. They can impute these conflicting experiences to a broad, overarching explanation.
According to Fong and Tiedens (2002), elevated status evokes ambivalent emotions in women. In particular, status may elicit the positive emotions they associate with a sense of achievement and power. Nevertheless, in women, status may also elicit the negative emotions they associate with violations of social norms.
To examine this possibility, the status of participants, all of whom were women, was manipulated. The participants engaged in a workplace simulation task. Specifically, they completed a questionnaire and were randomly assigned to assume the role of a supervisor, to increase status, or an assistant, to reduce status. Assistants were told they must follow the guidance of supervisors. Assistants then imagined they were to perform many demanding tasks, as assigned by the supervisor, and practiced reading an apology. Supervisors imagined they were correcting the errors committed by the assistants and read a reprimand.
Participants rated the extent to which they felt happy, pleased, sad, and worried. A similarity and intensity measure of ambivalence was evaluated. In particular, for each person, the sum of responses to happy and sad was divided by 2. The absolute difference between happy and sad was deducted from the answer. Elevated scores indicate that individuals reported considerable happiness and sadness--and the levels of happiness and sadness were similar to each other--implying ambivalence.
As this measure demonstrated, ambivalence was more pronounced when status was increased. Another index of ambivalence demonstrated the same pattern. In particular, positive and negative emotions were negatively related when status was low, but negligibly related when status was high. Presumably, positive and negative emotions are often inversely associated with each other: If people feel positive, they seldom feel negative, and vice versa. However, if they experience ambivalence, and thus positive and negative emotions together, this negative association is nullified (Fong & Tiedens, 2002).
Status also evoked another form of dissonance, called goal ambivalence. When status was high, individuals tended to report a need for both power and affiliation (Fong & Tiedens, 2002). Thus, ambivalent goals and attitudes might be associated with ambivalent emotions.
According to the dynamic model of affect (Reich, 2003), elevated levels of stress might curb the likelihood of ambivalent emotions. Specifically, this model assumes that emotions vary along a continuum from simple and unidimensional to complex and multidimensional. When stress is elevated, individuals direct their attention to immediate demands. The range of cues that individuals consider is confined. Positive and negative emotions are collapsed into a single dimension, representing valence. That is, individuals merely consider whether an object or event should be approached and reinforced or avoided and neglected. In contrast, when stress diminishes, individuals can process and experience more complex emotions.
The capacity to recognize ambivalent emotions varies across individuals. Even young children recognize that people can experience mixed emotions. In one study, conducted by Kestenbaum and Gelman (1995), participants were exposed to a series of faces, portraying mixed emotions or pure emotions. They had to choose the label, such as "happy", "sad", or "both happy and sad", that describes the facial expression.
Participants who were 4 years of age, 5 years of age or adults were more likely to choose the mixed label when indeed the expression demonstrated a combination of positive and negative emotions. In other words, they could recognise ambivalent emotions. Similar findings were observed when participants needed to label the emotions associated with various stories--although four year old participants did not perform as effectively on this task. Furthermore, as Steele, Steele, Croft, and Fonagy (1999) showed, this ability to understand mixed emotions in six year olds is positively related to secure attachment (see attachment theory).
Other studies have shown that more sophisticated processing of ambivalent emotions may unfold later in life. Larsen (2007), for example, revealed the capacity to predict whether or not a scenario is likely to evoke mixed feelings develops at about 10 or 11 years old.
In general, neurobiological evidence indicates that negative affect and positive affect correspond to distinct circuits in the brain. For example, as Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, and Ito (2000) emphasized, the extent to which individuals experience negative affect, such as anxiety and fear rather than contentment and composure, is primarily represented by the right hemisphere. In contrast, the degree to which individuals experience positive affect, such as excitement and commitment instead of dejection and lethargy, is primarily mediated by the left hemisphere. Thus, at least from this perspective, individuals can experience both positive and negative affective states concurrently (see also Cacioppo and Bertson, 1994).
Similarly, the level of negative affect is primarily determined by activation in the thalamo-amygdala or thalamo-cortico-amygdala pathways (Le Doux, 1996). In contrast, the level of positive affect is more dependent on the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway, projecting from the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens (Le Doux, 1996).
Some theories of emotion assume that ambivalent emotions are implausible. For example, according to some models, emotions can be represented by two orthogonal dimensions: valence and activation (e.g., Russell & Feldmam-Barrett, 1999). Each emotional state is represented at one point on this space. Hence, no emotion can be represented as both positive and negative on valence. Individuals, from this perspective, cannot experience both positive and negative states at the same time.
Nevertheless, according to other models, the extent to which individuals experience positive and negative states is represented by two distinct dimensions. The evaluative space model, for example, entails these two dimensions (e.g., Cacioppa & Bernston, 1994& Diener & Emmons, 1984). Hence, at any time, from this perspective, individuals can experience high levels of positive and negative emotions at the same time.
Carrera and Oceja (2007) developed a measure, called the Analogical Emotional Scale, which can be used to measure the extent to which individuals experience ambivalent emotions. One of the unique features of this scale is that researchers can distinguish between simultaneous and sequential mixed emotions. To illustrate, sometimes individuals experience positive and negative emotions at the same time. They might win a moderate prize and, therefore, experience excitement but disappointment concurrently--perhaps an example of simultaneous ambivalent emotions. Alternatively, they might feel excited about securing a new job and then, a few minutes later, feel sad about leaving their existing job--perhaps an example of sequential ambivalent emotions.
To differentiate simultaneous and sequential ambivalent emotions, Carrera and Oceja (2007) developed the Analogical Emotional Scale. Specifically, individuals first complete an activity that evokes emotions. They might, for example, be instructed to watch a movie.
Second, participants receive an empty graph. The Y axis represents intensity, ranging from very low to very high. The X axis represent duration, ranging from the onset to the end of an emotional experience. The task of participants was to draw two lines on this graph. The first line represented the intensity of happiness they experienced across this duration. For example, if their happiness increased during the movie, they might draw a line with a positive gradient. If their happiness fluctuated, they might draw a wavy line, with many peaks and troughs. The second line was the same but represented the intensity of sadness they experienced across this duration.
In some instances, the graphs indicated that individuals experienced significant happiness and sadness at the same time, defined as simultaneous mixed emotions. In other instances, the graphs indicate that individuals experienced both happiness and sadness but not concurrently, defined as sequential mixed emotions.
Carrera and Oceja (2007) conducted three studies to validate this measure and clarify the situations that evoke simultaneous and sequential mixed emotions. In the first study, for example, participants were instructed to recall the time they left school to attend university. They next completed the Analogical Emotional Scale. They also completed a traditional rating scale, evaluating whether or not they experienced sadness, happiness, and other emotions. The duration of this emotional experience was also assessed.
If the emotional experience was long, 51% of individuals demonstrated simultaneous mixed emotions. Nevertheless, 73% of participants reported they experienced both happiness and sadness concurrently, as measured by a traditional rating scale. If the emotional experience was shorter, only 15% of individuals demonstrated simultaneous mixed emotions.
In the second study, happy, sad, or mixed emotions were induced. Participants read an advertisement about a company that facilitates moving. To induce happiness, the advertisement highlighted the excitement of moving. To induce sadness, the advertisement emphasized the sadness that moving evokes. To induce mixed emotions, the advertisement highlighted that both one stage of life ends as the other stage of life begins. Next, participants completed the Analogical Emotional Scale.
When the advertisement referred to both the positive and negative implications of moving, 35% of participants demonstrated simultaneous mixed emotions, as gauged by the Analogical Emotional Scale. These percentages were only 23% and 13% when sadness and happiness was induced respectively. However, when completing the rating scales, a higher percentage of participants maintained they experienced both happiness and sadness.
In the final study, a movie was presented to elicit either simultaneous or sequential ambivalent emotions. To evoke simultaneous emotions, they watched a movie that evokes bittersweet feeling--about the wedding of an elderly couple, one of whom was afflicted with Alzheimer' Disease. To evoke sequential emotions, they watched a movie about a sad situation with a happy ending. As the Analogical Emotional Scale showed, participants were more likely to experience simultaneous ambivalent conditions after watching a bittersweet scene relative to a movie in which an unfortunate event is later resolved.
One of the drawbacks of this procedure is that emotions are assessed retrospectively. Larsen, McGraw, Mellers, and Cacioppo (2004) developed an alternative procedure to overcome this problem. During an emotional event, participants press one button when they feel happy and another button when they feel unhappy. Nevertheless, in some contexts, this task is difficult to complete (for other methods, see alo Schimmack, 2005).
Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, and Carstensen (2008) developed a method to evoke and to measure poignancy--an example of a mixed emotion. Specifically, in this study, participants imagined some event ending, like their tenure at a company. They then specifed the extent to which this image elicited various positive or negative emotions, like happiness or sadness. The minimum rating of happiness or sadness is assumed to reflect the level of poignancy. For example, if a participant assigned a 2 to sadness and a 1 to happiness, poignancy would equal 1.
Larsen and McGraw (2011) also uncovered evidence of mixed emotions. That is, after watching bittersweet film clips, compared to other film, clips, participants reported experience happiness and sadness simultaneously. Both online measures of their ongoing emotions as well as open ended measures substantiated this experience. Furthermore, even people who did not previously believe that people can experience positive and negative emotions simultaneously reported these mixed feelings.
The concept of organizational ambivalence was introduced by Tang, Dickson, Marino, Jintong, and Powell (2010). This concept was introduced partly as a means to reconcile a persistent controversy in the literature. According to many scholars, organizations should introduce complex structures. They should, for example, simultaneously pursue a range of distinct, and sometimes conflicting goals, such as production, profit, sales, and market share, for example. They should introduce a diversity of products categories, technologies, and strategies as well as operate in many nations. This complexity ensures that companies can exploit any changes or trends that transpire unexpectedly. Consistent with this premise, complexity has been shown to be associated with firm performance (e.g., Burton & Forsyth, 1986), especially in dynamic environments (e.g., Ashmos, Duchon, & McDaniel, 2000). Conversely, other scholars maintain the complexity should be curbed to ensure the operations are efficient and thus changes c an be introduced rapidly (e.g., Blau & McKinley, 1979).
Tang, Dickson, Marino, Jintong, and Powell (2010) demonstrated that both of these approaches can be applied simultaneously, called organizational ambivalence. Specifically, they maintained that organizations should champion or promulgate many goals concurrently, called latent ambivalence. That is, organizations can readily advocate and champion many goals, without necessarily devoting significant resources to these pursuits. If they embrace many goals, managers are more likely to be understand and appreciate a more diverse array of issues, increasing their capacity to adapt whenever necessary.
Nevertheless, as soon as they need to allocate resources to some endeavor, individuals should reduce complexity. For example, companies can either decide to form many alliances with other organizations or work independently. Both of these strategies demand resources. Hence, organizations should primarily pursue only one of these strategies to enhance efficiency and expertise in this domain as well as clarity in the organization.
Tang, Dickson, Marino, Jintong, and Powell (2010) confirmed these propositions. In one study, managers of small or medium firms rated the degree to which a variety of goals, such as sales, profitability, prestige, technology, innovation, cash flow, sales growth, and employee satisfaction, are important. In addition, they evaluated the degree to which they devote effort to various strategies, such as advertising, competitive pricing, R&D, and so forth. Finally, sales growth, cash flow, gross profit, return on investment, and net profit from operations were assessed to gauge performance. When all the goals were rated as similarly important, representing latent ambivalence, but only one or two of the strategies were pursued, performance was enhanced.
Furthermore, in more dynamic environments, both forms of complexity diminished. Presumably, in uncertain times, organizations seem to confine their goals and activities. Complexity, or the number of factors that managers consider when they reach decisions, was not significantly associated with organizational ambivalence.
In the past, the discourse around rational-emotive therapy (Ellis, 1962), now often called rational-emotive behavioral therapy (Ellis, 1994), revolved around how to curb negative emotions. According to Ellis, irrational beliefs about events in the environment could translate to unhealthy negative emotions rather than healthy negative emotions--such as depression rather than sadness, regret rather than guilt, or anger rather than annoyance. To illustrate, depression is not regarded as extreme sadness but as sadness blended with the irrational belief that such emotions must be eradicated.
Collard and O'Kelly (2011), in contrast, differentiate between healthy and unhealthy positive emotions. They argue that happiness, excitement, and caring or affection may reflect healthy positive emotions--that is, positive emotions that coincide with rational beliefs. In contrast, euphoria, ecstasy, and obsessive love may reflect unhealthy positive emotions that coincide with irrational beliefs. These irrational beliefs include "I can stand anything", "This is the best thing that can happen to me", "I can control everything", and "They can't do wrong".
The vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system and emanates from the brainstem. This nerve then activates many organs, including the heart, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, bronchi, and some facial muscles--organs associated with emotions and social interactions. Activity in the vagus nerve diminishes the heart rate, and the extent of this decrease is called cardiac vagal tone.
Typically, measures of respiratory sinus arrhythmia reflect this cardiac vagal tone. In particular, the heart rate tends to vary across each breath. This variation increases with rises in vagal tone. Therefore, heart rate variability reflects activity of the vagal nerve, indicative of the parasympathetic nervous system. Greater heart rate variability, in general, reflects elevated levels of parasympathetic activity and thus greater wellbeing.
Yet the relationship between some measures of wellbeing, such as depression and social functioning, and cardiac vagal tone is mixed and complex. According to Kogan, Gruber, Shallcross, Ford, and Mauss (2013), these contradictions can be explained by the proposition that moderate cardiac vagal tone is more beneficial than low cardiac vagal tone. But, very high levels of cardiac vagal tone could undermine wellbeing, reflecting an inverted U shape.
In this study, several measures of wellbeing were included, such as life satisfaction, global functioning, and symptoms of depression. Heart rate variability was measured a week later, while watching an unemotional movie. Moderate levels of heart rate variability coincided with better wellbeing, as gauged by each index, than low or very high levels of heart rate variability.
These findings are consistent with the notion that perhaps a blend of positive and negative feelings optimizes wellbeing. Alternatively, very high levels of vagal activity may promote excessive levels of social engagement, prompting relationships that are perhaps too intense or undiscriminating.
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Last Update: 7/15/2016