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Attitudinal ambivalence

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals often adopt both positive and negative attitudes towards an issue, like capital punishment, at the same time. These attitudes are called ambivalent (also see the discussion on ambivalent emotions).

Usually, attitudes towards some issue, such as exercise, will guide behavior. When attitudes are ambivalent, however, this relationship diminishes& some individuals might strongly maintain that exercise is important, but nevertheless fail to engage in this activity if their attitudes are ambivalent (for a review, see Conner and Sparks, 2002).

Ambivalent attitudes may also be more susceptible to information or persuasion. If individuals strongly maintain that exercise is important, but feel ambivalent towards this issue, even trivial information could change their overall attitude. After reading a flawed article, they might immediately decide that exercise is futile (see Armitage & Conner, 2000).

Measures of ambivalence

The measurement of ambivalence remains a controversial issue. Some authors operationalize ambivalence as a conflict between cognitive and affective evaluations (e.g., Lavine, Thomsen, Zanna, and Borgida, 1998). Most authors, however, examine global ambivalence--that is, the extent to which individuals perceive both positive and negative features of some issue, topic, or object at one time.

Measures vary along several key dimensions, according to Conner and Sparks (2002), and the various measures do not all correlate highly (Conner & Sparks, 2002). First, whether ambivalence is gauged directly or indirectly varies across measures. Some authors, for example, might directly ask participants whether their attitude towards some topic or object is mixed or comprises both positive and negative evaluations. They might be asked whether they entertain conflicting thoughts, conflicting feelings, or both conflicting thoughts and feelings about some issue, like preemptive wars.

These direct measures are assumed to gauge experienced ambivalence (Jonas, Diehl & Bromer, 1997), sometimes called felt ambivalence. That is, individuals are assumed to be aware of this ambivalence. Measures might comprise 5 to 10 items, all of which ask participants to specify whether they are cognizant of both positive and negative evaluations towards some topic or object.

The primary limitation of this perspective is that individuals might not always be aware of this ambivalence (Bassili, 1996). That is, ambivalence is often unpleasant and, thus, individuals might attempt to inhibit their awareness of these contradictions (van Harreveld, van der Pligt, & de Liver, 2009).

Indirect measures have been developed to circumvent this problem (Jonas., Diehl & Bromer, 1997). Typically, positive and negative thoughts, feelings, or both are measured separately. Then, a formula is applied to represent level of ambivalence. In general, high levels of positive and negative evaluations are assumed to reflect ambivalence.

The first attempt to apply an indirect measure was reported by Kaplan (1972). Participants were first told to consider only the positive or favorable features of some topic or object, such as eating chocolates , disregarding the negative or unfavorable features. They then rated the extent to which this topic or object seems positive. The same process was then repeated for negative or unfavorable features of this topic or object. These positive and negative evaluations were rated on a semantic differential scale. The two sets of evaluations, which tend to be uncorrelated with each other (Sparks, Conner, James, Shepherd, & Povey, 2001), were then subjected to some formula.

Second, whether or not the procedure gauges overall evaluations or specific beliefs also varies across measures. Kaplan (1972), for example, instructed participants to specify their overall evaluations of positive, and then negative, features of topics or objects. In contrast, some authors instruct participants to rate the topics or objects on a series of distinct attributes or beliefs (see van der Pligt, De Vries, Manstead & Van Harreveld, 2000, for a discussion). An open-ended variant has also been applied: Participants generate a series of beliefs about some topic (Bell, Esses, & Maio, 1996), and these responses are then collated.

Third, measures can focus on cognition, affect, of both cognition and affect. Examples might include "I have formed conflicting cognitions about marijuana", "I experience conflicting feelings about marijuana", and "Although my thoughts about marijuana are negative, my feelings are positive" represent an example of each possibility (see Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995).

Finally, the formulas that are used to combine the positive and negative evaluations, an important issue for indirect measures, has ignited some controversy (see Jonas, K., Bromer, & Diehl, 2000& Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). A common method, discussed by Thompson, Zanna, and Griffin (1995), is to sum the positive and negative ratings, divide by two, and then subtract the absolute difference between the positive and negative ratings.

Consequences of ambivalence

Ambivalence, like accessibility, is often regarded as a determinant of attitude strength--the strength with which individuals adopt an attitude. According to Krosnick and Petty (1995), attitude strength, and thus ambivalence, should demonstrate several distinct effects. First, ambivalence in attitudes should affect the stability of these relationships across time. Second, ambivalence should affect whether attitudes influence intentions or behaviors. Third, ambivalence should determine whether attitudes are receptive to persuasion or other information.

Stability over time

Attitude ambivalence should reduce stability over time. In particular, according to Wilson and Hodge (1992), attitudes depend on which beliefs, feelings, and other cognitions are salient at that time. If individuals form ambivalent attitudes, they have developed a range of contradictory beliefs and feelings about the relevant topic, such as capital punishment. Some contexts might primarily activate positive beliefs and feelings& other contexts might primarily activate negative beliefs and feelings, ultimately translating to instability of attitudes over time.

Several studies have shown that ambivalent attitudes are correlated with self report measures of instability of attitudes over time. In a study conducted by Conner, Sherlock, and Orbell (1998), for example, to gauge ambivalence, participants expressed the extent to which they espouse positive evaluations of Ecstasy and then expressed the extent to which they espouse negative evaluations of Ecstasy. As Conner and Sparks (2002) later reported, these authors also asked individuals whether their attitudes vary across times, with questions like Sometimes my attitude towards Ecstasy varies, sometimes it is positive and sometimes it is negative". Ambivalence and variability of attitudes were strongly correlated with one another.

Other studies have utilized indirect, and perhaps more compelling, measures of variability over time. For example, in a study conducted by Bargh, Chaiken, Govender, and Pratto (1992), participants had to evaluate an object twice. If these participants had expressed ambivalent attitudes towards the object, their evaluations were more likely to vary from each other. Nevertheless, some studies have shown that ambivalence is not related to stability of attitudes over time (e.g., Armitage & Conner, 2000& Bassili, 1996).

The extent to which attitudes affect intentions or behavior

According to Krosnick and Petty (1995), strong attitudes should be more likely to govern behavior that should weak attitudes. Ambivalence, if regarded as an index of attitude strength, should thus affect the association between attitude and either intentions or behavior.

Erber, Hodges, and Wilson (1995) explicated one mechanism that could explain how ambivalence affects the relationship between attitude and behavior. Attitudes that are ambivalent may change over time. Thus, an attitude at one time might not be the same as an attitude at a later time. The attitude at one time, therefore, is unlikely to predict a behavior at another time.

Fazio (1986, 1995) proposed another mechanism that could explain this effect of ambivalence on the association between attitude and behavior. Specifically, according to Fazio, attitudes tend to bias perceptions of the attitude object. If individuals espouse negative attitudes towards alcohol, their perceptions of this beverage tend to be unfavorable& they are more sensitive to the foul smell or biased by memories of intoxicated behavior. These perceptions and memories then govern behavior. Ambivalent attitudes will automatically elicit both positive and negative perceptions of some issue or object and, thus, will not strongly dictate behavior.

Some studies have indeed shown that ambivalence moderates the association between attitude and behavior. Moore (1973), for example, established this interaction. Nevertheless, the survey assessed current attitude and past reports of behavior. This study, therefore, does not show whether ambivalence affects the association between attitudes now and behavior in the future.

Other studies, however, have shown that ambivalence reduces the association between attitude and intention--a key antecedent to behavior. Sparks, Hedderley, and Shepherd (1992) confirmed this interaction in the context of food consumption. Nevertheless, in a laboratory study, Jonas, Diehl, and Bromer (1997) showed that ambivalence increased the association between attitudes and intentions.

Conner and Sparks (2002) maintain that many past studies have not utilized suitable research methods: the measures of ambivalence, the analytical techniques, or the use of laboratories could have contaminated these findings. Furthermore, Conner and Sparks (2002) reviewed other studies, conducted at their own universities, that circumvent these limitations. Overall, these findings confirm that ambivalence diminishes the association between attitudes and intentions (see, for example, Conner & Flesch, 1998, cited in Conner & Sparks , 2002) .

For example, in one set of six related studies (Conner, Sparks, Povey, James, & Shepherd, 1996& cited in Conner & Sparks, 2002), attitudes to some form of food consumption, such as eating chocolate, eating five portions of fruit and vegetables, or eating meat, was determined. In addition, intention was measured, with items like "I intend to eat a low-fat diet". Finally, ambivalence was assessed. That is, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they evaluated some form of food consumption positively and negatively in isolation. Ambivalence was tantamount to elevated levels of both positive and negative evaluations. Moderated regression analysis was undertaken to ascertain whether ambivalent attitudes moderates the relationship between attitudes and intentions. The results were mixed& overall, when ambivalence was elevated, the association between attitudes and intentions was diminished, but this effect was not strong and did not extend to all studies. Conceivably, in some of the studies, minimal levels of ambivalence, or limited reliability of this measure, reduced the statistical power.

As Conner and Sparks (2002) argue, this interaction might not be pronounced in between-subject designs. That is, individuals with the most positive attitudes might not intend to engage in some behavior more than other participants--many other factors can affect behavior. However, this interaction might be more pronounced in within-subject designs. In these designs, participants rate the attitudes and intentions towards a series of 20 or so distinct behaviors. The behaviors that individuals perceive as more desirable should also coincide with the behaviors they intend to enact. Indeed, Conner and Sparks (2002) report some evidence that within-subject designs more convincingly show that ambivalence moderates the association between attitude and intention (see MacDonald & Zanna, 1998).

Conner and Sparks (2002) also review studies that indicate that ambivalence moderates the association between attitudes and behavior, gauged by self reports. The studies they report tend to show that ambivalence does indeed reduce the association between attitudes and behavior. To illustrate, Armitage and Conner (2000) showed that ambivalence curbed the relationship between attitudes and intention as well as between attitudes and behavior. Interestingly, these effects persisted even after attitude stability was controlled. Conner and Sparks (2002) also highlight these effects persist even after attitude extremity, which is sometimes confounded with ambivalence, is controlled.

Malleability of attitudes

Several studies have assessed whether or not ambivalence affects the extent to which attitudes are malleable and pliable--that is, susceptible to influence. Bassili (1996), for example, assessed the extent to which three distinct attitudes are susceptible to persuasive messages. Two of three attitudes were more susceptible to messages when ambivalence was elevated (for consonant findings, see MacDonald & Zanna, 1998).

Another compelling study was conducted by Armitage and Conner (2000). This study assessed attitudes towards a low-fat diet& ambivalence towards this diet was also assessed. Five months later, participants were exposed to information about diets, such as government recommendations and population data on fat intake. Only some of the participants, however, were also exposed to an intervention that was intended to change their attitudes towards these diets. Finally, attitudes towards these diets were assessed again.

The attempt to manipulate attitudes was successful& attitudes to low-fat diets were especially likely to improve in participants who read the persuasive material. More importantly, the effect of this persuasive material on attitudes was particularly pronounced in participants who had reported ambivalent attitudes--although this interaction only approached significance.

Information processing

Ambivalent attitudes are often assumed to be less accessible and, therefore, less likely to guide or bias the processing of related topics or objects. Jonas, Diehl, and Bromer (1997) did indeed review evidence, verifying that ambivalence tends to reduce the accessibility of attitudes. Furthermore, Van der Pligt, De Vries, Manstead, and Van Harreveld (2000) showed the time to integrate information and form a final judgment was prolonged when individuals exhibited ambivalent attitudes towards this issue.

Cunningham, Raye, and Johnson (2004) showed that ambivalence was correlated with the extent to which individuals felt they need to inhibit or control their immediate response to some object or topic. Presumably, when individuals form ambivalent attitudes towards some concept, more effort is needed to reconcile the conflict between positive and negative evaluations.

Ambivalence thus could affect the performance and functioning of managers and teams. Ambivalence often implies that individuals recognize and consider the complications of issues (Fiol & O'Connor, 2003& Plambeck & Weber, 2010). That is, ambivalent managers often consider issues more carefully, test possibilities, and invite contributions from other people (Piderit, 2000). Nevertheless, this awareness can also prolong responses to problems (Levinthal & Rerup, 2006).

Antecedents to ambivalence

Risky but pleasant--or helpful but unpleasant--behaviors

Several authors have proposed possible events, conditions, or characteristics that could provoke ambivalence. For example, sometimes individuals are aware that some action will seem pleasant in the immediate future, but could provoke problems in the remote future, or vice versa (Conner, Povey, Sparks, James, & Shepherd, 1998a& Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). This consideration of conflicting immediate and remote consequences can evoke ambivalent emotions or attitudes.

For example, alcohol consumption and the reduction of fat consumption elicit marked feelings of ambivalence, as shown by Conner, Povey, Sparks, James, and Shepherd (1998a). Specifically, in their study, participants rated the extent to which they perceived a variety of activities that affect health, such as exercise, smoking, condom use, and eating breakfast as positive on a six point scale and then as negative on a six point scale. Activities that were perceived as highly positive and highly negative were regarded as ambivalent. Interestingly, ambivalence was uncorrelated with overall evaluation. For example, consumption of illicit drugs was perceived as highly ambivalent but negative overall. In contrast, stress avoidance was perceived as highly ambivalent but positive overall.

As Conner and Sparks (2002) emphasize, consumption of food and substances are not only often regarded as ambivalent, but are also very frequent acts. Hence, ambivalence is relevant to many decisions throughout the day.

Being envied

When individuals feel they are envied by other people, they experience ambivalent attitudes, as shown by Rodriguez Mosquera, Parrott, and de Mondoza (2010). Specifically, if envied by other people, individuals feel confident and superior, enhancing their mood. Nevertheless, they also feel they might be feared or disliked by other people.

Furthermore, according to Rodriguez Mosquera, Parrott, and de Mondoza (2010), in cultures that are characterized as individualistic and hierarchical, rather than collectivist and egalitarian, these ambivalent attitudes may be especially pronounced. Specifically, in these individualistic cultures, individuals tend to value achievement and performance rather than harmony and cooperation. Hence, if envied by others, they are especially likely to feel proud& they also are particularly likely to feel they might be disliked.

Individual characteristics that affect the likelihood of ambivalence

Some evidence substantiates the proposition that individual characteristics, such as demographics or personality, could affect the likelihood of ambivalent attitudes. To illustrate, in a study conducted by Thompson and Zanna (1995), ambivalence towards five distinct issues was measured. Ambivalence towards one issue was correlated with ambivalence towards other unrelated issues. Thus, individual characteristics might affect ambivalence towards issues in general.

In particular, some traits might increase the likelihood that individuals attempt to reconcile conflicts between positive and negative evaluations of issues. To illustrate, individuals who like to contemplate issues, called need for cognition, might resolve conflicts between positive and negative evaluations and, therefore, demonstrate reduced levels of ambivalence. Consistent with this argument, Thompson and Zanna (1995) showed that individuals who reported a need for cognition were less likely to form both positive and negative evaluations of topics.

Personal fear of invalidity might promote ambivalent attitudes. That is, some individuals do not like to commit errors& they are especially sensitive to blunders and other shortcomings. Because of this tendency, called a personal fear of invalidity, some individuals might shun inconsistencies and thus seldom reflect upon positive and negative evaluations towards the same issue. These positive and negative evaluations are not reconciled, and ambivalence thus persists. Thompson and Zanna (1995) did indeed show that personal fear of invalidity was positively related to ambivalent attitudes. This relationship persisted only if individuals felt appreciably involved in the issue.

Conner and Sparks (2002) acknowledge that personality traits, including need for closure, are not always related to ambivalence. Conceivably, other factors, such as tolerance to ambiguity, might affect whether these traits are related to ambivalence.

Semantic incongruence

As Gebauer, Maio, and Pakizeh (2013) showed, individuals sometimes feel ambivalent towards people or objects that, actually, seem positive on all key attributes. They illustrated the example of a person who exhibits the intelligence of Einstein and the humility of Gandhi. They posed the possibility that someone who exhibits these qualities may seem almost too perfect, evoking a sense of ambivalence, despite their positive attributes. They argued this ambivalence can emanate whenever a person, or object, exhibits attributes that, although positive, are semantically incongruent. That is, elevated levels of agency and communion, in this instance epitomized by intelligence and humility, may seem incongruent.

In one study, for example, participants received information about 20 people. Specifically, each of the 20 people were assigned two personality characteristics, such as introverted and cheerful. Participants rated the degree to which these 20 people evoked feelings of felt ambivalence, epitomized by items like "I have mixed thoughts and feelings toward this person".

Other participants judged the degree to which the two traits were positive or negative. In addition, an index of semantic incongruence was created for each pair of traits as well. That is, traits that were similar on agency and communion were perceived as semantically congruent. Traits that were perceived as different on these dimensions were perceived as semantically incongruent. Semantic incongruence was associated with felt ambivalence, even after controlling the degree to which the two traits were similarly positive or negative. In other words, even if both traits seemed positive or both traits seemed negative, a person who was described by semantically incongruent attributes generated feelings of ambivalence. Subsequent studies replicated this finding.

The reason that semantic incongruence evokes feelings of ambivalence is not certain. The finding cannot be ascribed to a sense of dissonance: in one study, a sense of dissonance did not mediate the relationship between semantic incongruence and felt ambivalence. Perhaps, semantic incongruence compromises fluency& that is, two disparate attributes are not processed as rapidly. As fluency declines, certainty about conclusions diminishes as well.

Individual characteristics that affect aversion to ambivalence

Preference for consistency influences the subjective response to ambivalence. That is, some individuals experience an especially pronounced aversion to contradictions between their cognitions or behaviors (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). Because of their aversion to inconsistencies, individuals who exhibit a preference for consistency do not embrace ambivalent attitudes (Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002). Ambivalent attitudes motivate individuals to both adopt and reject some action at the same time (van Harreveld, van der Pligt, & de Liver, 2009). If individuals need to decide which course of action to pursue, these contradictions are especially prominent and the dissonance is particularly aversive (van Harreveld, van der Pligt, & de Liver, 2009).

Consistent with this proposition, in a study conducted by Newby-Clark et al. (2002), participants were instructed to reflect upon only the favorable facets of some policy, such as capital punishment, and then rated the extent to which these facets are positive. Then, participants were instructed to c reflect upon only the unfavorable f facets of this policy, before rating the extent to which these facets are negative. Finally, participants evaluated the degree to which they felt torn about this issue as well as answered questions that gauge their preference for consistency.

If participants had reported marked positive and negative attitudes towards this issue, they subsequently felt very torn, but only if preference for consistency was elevated. Ambivalent attitudes, thus, were aversive only to participants who reported a preference for consistency.

Culture and characteristics of organizations

As Plambeck and Weber (2010) showed, the culture and characteristics of organizations can affect the likelihood that managers will experience ambivalent attitudes towards workplace issues. In particular, if the strategy of an organization is moderate or complex rather than confined to one approach, ambivalence is more prevalent. Furthermore, if managers assume the organization can impose some, but not elevated, control over issues in the environment, ambivalence is also more common.

Specifically, in this study, 220 CEOs completed a questionnaire. First, participants reported the extent to which they espouse both positive and negative towards a specific issue, in this instance the expansion or growth of the European Union. If CEOs adopted both positive and negative evaluations, their attitudes were regarded as ambivalent. Second, the degree to which the organization focuses on the prevention of threat, called defensive cultures, instead of seeking opportunities, called offensive cultures, was evaluated. A typical item was "Our company is usually among the first in the industry to offer new solutions". Finally, the extent to which they feel control over the environment was assessed, with questions like "Our company has the capability to address EU enlargement".

The results were very informative. First, if the strategy was moderate, midway between a defensive and offensive approach, ambivalence was more likely to be demonstrated. According to Plambeck and Weber (2010), this moderate strategy implies that both defensive and offensive approaches are pursued. More dimensions or attributes, therefore, are utilized to evaluate issues. Because many dimensions or attributes are considered, both positive and negative features of an issue or policy are recognized, manifesting ambivalence.

Second, if the extent to which they feel they can control complications in the environment is moderate, rather than particularly low or high, ambivalence was also more likely to be expressed. Limited control of the environment often evokes a sense of helplessness, curbing the effort that is needed to analyze issues carefully and uncover contradictions effectively. Elevated control can promote complacency and, therefore, also contain this effort (Plambeck & Weber, 2010).

Neural underpinnings of ambivalence

Cunningham, Raye, and Johnson (2004) examined the brain regions that might underpin attitudes, including ambivalent attitudes. In short, according to this study, the anterior cingulate cortex, the right anterior prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex may be activated when individuals reflect upon topics or objects that provoke ambivalence.

Specifically, Cunningham, Raye, and Johnson (2004) undertook an fMRI study that was intended to ascertain the brain regions that underpin attitudes. In this study, 114 concepts were presented, such as murder, love, and abortion. For each concept, they completed one of two tasks. They sometimes evaluated these concepts explicitly, on a scale that ranges from good to bad. Alternatively, they determined whether the concept was concrete or abstract--and thus were sometimes exposed to the item without evaluating this topic or object explicitly. In addition, fMRI was used to ascertain which regions were active during these tasks. Subsequently, participants were asked to estimate the extent to which the concept was good and bad--to gauge ambivalence--and intense in emotion. Finally, participants indicated the extent to which they felt they need to suppress or control their immediate response to each concept.

Regardless of the task, the emotional intensity of concepts was correlated with activation of the left amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex. These regions are thus sensitive to intensity, regardless of whether the concepts are evaluated explicitly, thus representing more implicit evaluations. If participants did evaluate the concept explicitly, intensity was correlated with the right orbital frontal cortex in particular and the temporal pole.

In contrast to intensity, whether overall attitudes were positive or negative, called valence, was related to activation of the insular cortex, regardless of which task was undertaken. The left lateral orbital frontal cortex was correlated with valence if the concept was evaluated explicitly.

Finally, and most pertinent to ambivalence, ratings of whether individuals inhibited their immediate response to the concept was related to activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, the right anterior prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. These regions, thus, underpin control or inhibition of preliminary urges or inclinations. Typically, this control or inhibition is applied when individuals form ambivalent attitudes--because more effort is needed to reconcile this conflict. Indeed, ambivalence towards these concepts, represented by elevated levels of good and bad, were indeed correlated with ratings of control (Cunningham, Raye, and Johnson (2004). In short, ambivalent attitudes will tend to elicit a need to control urges, underpinned by various regions of the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate.


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